Foundations on the Hill: What Does Rising Populism Mean for Philanthropy?

On February 27, 2023, Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Elizabeth McGuigan spoke as a part of a panel conversation entitled “What Does Rising Populism Mean for Philanthropy?” featured at the 20th Annual Foundations on the Hill event hosted by United Philanthropy Forum, Council on Foundations, and Independent Sector. 

The following is part of her remarks from that event. To read the remarks in full, visit the Giving Review.

When thinking about the current rise in populism on the right, it’s important to remember that this isn’t new—there have been waves of anti-elite sentiments throughout history. And we recognize that plenty of smart people on both sides of the aisle believe it’s healthy for our society to question the concentration of power within government or among a few individuals or institutions.

The sentiment isn’t wrong. But when this is used to support policy changes that are anti-wealth creation, anti-capitalism, anti-intellectual and anti-entrepreneurship, we have concerns. The Roundtable takes issue with the argument that government policy must be wielded as a weapon to punish those you don’t agree with.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we are hearing more of this line of thinking among conservatives, who are traditionally more aligned on America’s founding principles of liberty, personal responsibility and limited government. The growing populism on the right is not the reflection of shared values, rather it is a symptom of concerning social discontent.

The overarching message coming from the populist right is that the elites, including philanthropists, are too powerful. But more specifically, the criticisms we are hearing follow a handful of themes. Some argue the large foundations are too progressive. As Michael Hartmann says, “The largest foundations’ policy-oriented grantmaking is lopsidedly liberal and getting more so—or, in the current jargon, it is ‘woke’ and getting ‘woker.’”

And I don’t think many on the right disagree with this assessment. However, the problem comes when the proposed solutions are more government micromanagement of the charitable sector, and restrictions on freedoms of speech and voluntary association, rather than voicing disagreement with their approach and working to build and support alternative institutions.

A second theme from the populist right is that foundations are not connected to real needs of our communities. Tucker Carlson captured this sentiment, claiming “Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”

This theme is rooted in the us versus them mentality that characterizes populism. The question becomes—if the donor’s philanthropic freedom is restrainedwho gets to decide how to distribute charitable funds? Surely the conservative answer shouldn’t be to give more power over private assets to the government to spend as it sees fit.

The third critique is that foundations are too political. We’ve heard this from Roger Colinvaux as he claimed that “Charities are supposed to be, and traditionally have been, outside of politics.” He specifically called out private foundations and donor-advised funds in an op-ed where he asked, “Do we really want ‘red’ and ‘blue’ charities? Do we want to tinge American’s generosity with political taint?” We hear similar arguments from Scott Walter of the Capital Research Center—whose research implies that groups on the left are abusing “dark money” 501(c)(3)s to engage in political activity.

It’s not hard to see where this is coming from. We live in a hyper-polarized environment where each political party has a defined position on most issues. However, missing from this criticism is an acknowledgment of the perfectly legal and long-standing policy activities of foundations and nonprofits and how this is distinct from prohibited political activities.

Donating private money to charity does not make that money property of the government or the taxpayer. As we point out in our recent paper, When Philanthropy Comes Under Attack, the tax code provides preferences for charitable giving because as a society, we are more than just a government and its taxpayers. American history is rich with stories of individuals coming together on a voluntary basis to address our most pressing problems. The tax code was designed to protect and encourage this vibrant civil society that exists outside of the realm of government.

But philanthropic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism. It includes the right to question those strategies, causes and goals and to point out where the bad ideas fall short. It also means building new institutions or enhancing existing stale institutions to raise the voice of those seeking change. An ongoing, vigorous discourse will only make civil society stronger.

Let’s have the important discussions and work to improve trust within and outside of the sector.

To read more about what the resurgence of populism means for charitable organizations, please see our policy primer on the topic here.

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