Philanthropy Roundtable’s Free to Give campaign elevates the voices of everyday Americans who have dedicated their careers to supporting those in need. Their work is made possible by the freedom of all Americans to give to the causes and communities they care about most.
The Roundtable recently spoke with Bob Eitel, co-founder and president of the Defense of Freedom Institute, and Jim Blew, the Institute’s co-founder. During this conversation, Eitel and Blew discussed why private philanthropy and local solutions can be more effective in improving education than government agencies like the Department of Education. They also reiterated the importance of the freedom for Americans to give privately, without fear of harassment or intimidation, to causes they care about.
This interview originally appeared in American Habits and has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you start the Defense of Freedom Institute and what role does it serve?
Blew: At the Defense of Freedom Institute (DFI), we are fighting to protect and enhance our nation’s education system. Both Bob and I had the privilege to work in the Trump administration under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as part of her leadership team, and while we were at the Department of Education, it became very clear to us that there were many forces trying to expand the reach of the federal government. When we left the department, we saw the need to consistently push back against that overreach and to put standards in place for the next administration to expand educational opportunities. Here we are, just over two years later, running DFI.
Q: What type of impact are you aiming for the organization to have in the future?
Eitel: Our goal is to re-envision the federal government’s role in our education system. We believe federal K-12 funding should shift to grants given directly to the states with no strings attached, for instance. We would also create an entirely new system of post-secondary financial aid for graduating high school seniors, whether that’s for a two or four-year institution or those who prefer to work in vocations or apprenticeships versus attending college. Our current federal policy does not sufficiently serve the needs of the latter two.
Q: For donors who want to get more involved, what differentiates DFI from other organizations?
Blew: Behind every federal policy is much more than op-eds and white papers. It involves deep legal work around the regulatory process. That’s where we excel, and it’s what sets us apart. We dive headfirst into the grueling policies of the Department of Education, and we can do that because we have significant experience in the department. We know how it works, how things get done and why things are the way they are. We have been organizing efforts to influence the federal regulatory and guidance process. Our track record proves we’re the best at it and the only organization exclusively focused on it.
Q: Funding is always a vital aspect for nonprofits to continue doing great work, yet there are folks in Washington, D.C., who are advocating for requirements that force charitable organizations to publicly disclose their donors’ private information. This could open the door to potential harassment in our increasingly polarized society. Does this at all concern you?
Eitel: The supporters of anti-donor privacy laws are taking aim at the free marketplace of ideas. We should be doing everything we can to protect charitable organizations and the generosity of people who are supporting them. It’s a fundamental aspect of American philanthropy that some wish to destroy simply to further a political agenda.
Q: Do you believe that removing the right to remain anonymous could chill charitable giving? For example, a donor might fear getting fired from a job if he or she gives to a controversial cause or organization, without the opportunity to remain anonymous.
Eitel: We’re at a point where employers are afraid of saying the wrong thing at work and being canceled. We see this all too often in the education system. From students thinking they’ll fail a class or receive a poor grade because they have differing opinions from their professors, to even losing out on educational opportunities. It’s a significant part of the problem that we need to fix. We should be embracing diversity of thought in our society instead of shaming people for it.
Q: After the recent Americans for Prosperity Foundation v Bonta Supreme Court decision, do you foresee any donor privacy threats on the horizon?
Eitel: Unfortunately, this issue appears to be a never-ending problem. We are seeing opponents of this decision still fighting it. They don’t care that what they want is unconstitutional. We’re already seeing this dynamic in several state legislatures, with lawmakers attempting to pass anti-donor privacy laws. The cultural context for these discussions has also changed in recent years. The notion of free speech simply doesn’t exist for some anymore.
Q: As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, what do you say to people who believe that, because your organization is focused on policy issues, you shouldn’t have a nonpartisan tax status?
Blew: Let’s be clear. We are nonpartisan in every aspect of what we do. Our policy stances are consistent with those of the U.S. Constitution. As a country, there needs to be civil discourse, public discussion and an array of ideas and thoughts. That’s how we flourish as a country, not by shutting people down if they don’t agree with us.
Q: Lastly, why do you believe protecting the freedom to give is important?
Eitel: The freedom to give to charitable organizations is a core American value. We need to do everything we can to protect the generosity of those willing to give and to protect philanthropic freedom for generations to come. DFI relies on the generosity of our donors to pursue agendas that seek to improve American society, culture and government and to enhance freedom and liberty. Without the freedom to give, we would not be able to fulfill our missions, and this republic would be worse for it.
View more stories about the importance of philanthropic freedom at FreeToGive.org.