Philanthropy Should Embrace Viewpoint Diversity

Philanthropy Should Embrace Viewpoint Diversity

May 06, 2021 Elise Westhoff

Last week, I shared the reasons I pursued a career in philanthropy in an op-ed for USA Today. In my piece, I voiced concern with the lack of honest discussion among the philanthropic community about identity politics and the impact it is having on charitable giving as well as those who benefit from it. 

Some responded on social media, calling me a “white supremacist,” “racist,” “bigot” and “idiotic extremist” for disagreeing with the prevailing narrative that donors should make decisions about their charitable giving solely through the lens of race and gender. In my op-ed I wrote:

“Now is the time to find and fund innovative efforts that promote real justice, ensure equal opportunity for people of all colors and creeds and uplift struggling communities from the biggest urban areas to the smallest rural towns. Philanthropy can and should play a leading role, but it should do so in a way that unifies and uplifts.”

America is a land of hope and opportunity. That being said, our nation’s history has dark and ugly parts, which has perpetuated problems that still exist today, especially for communities of color. I believe those need to be remedied, and philanthropy can and should play a role.

At the same time, as our national conversation has become more focused on identity politics, philanthropists now face tremendous internal and external pressure to change their missions and ignore other struggling communities. For example, support for rural America is plummeting even as it faces the opioid crisis, a poverty rate that’s 25 percent higher than urban areas, an epidemic of single motherhood and many other challenges.

People of all backgrounds have very real problems and need charitable support. Each year, billions of dollars are contributed annually to address an array of complicated issues, and the diversity of the causes supported reflect the diversity of the American people. If we are truly committed to improving our communities and helping all Americans, we should be able to discuss the allocation and efficacy of these funds. 

Many in our philanthropic community advocate for the need to build bridges—I couldn’t agree more. Bridges that last, however, require the perfect balance between tension and compression, a continuous coming together and pulling apart. We need to strike that delicate balance on the issues we care about most, and this will not be easy. In these divided times, the philanthropic sector has become insular—it needs more tension. The necessary conversations are awkward, uncomfortable and require us to act in good faith and not assume the worst of intentions.

At Philanthropy Roundtable, we believe:

  • That racism, anti-Semitism, extremism and hate in all forms should be condemned and support should be offered to organizations that fight these evils.
  • That people of all colors and creeds have the ability to overcome challenging circumstances, realize their full potential and succeed in life.
  • That there are tools, training and resources that help struggling communities break the cycle of poverty and find meaningful work.
  • That every child deserves access to a good education, and we unapologetically support school choice.
  • That there are common sense reforms to the criminal justice system and related programs that foster a greater sense of trust and understanding between police and the communities they serve with the goal of reducing violence and crime. We also believe that there should be second chances for those who have served time in that system.
  • That efforts to support medical research, mental health initiatives, faith-based giving, civics education, the arts, character development and more are an important part of civil society and worthy of support.

There are many philanthropists who want to build a compassionate society that respects all individuals from all walks of life. Doing so requires intellectual humility and genuine curiosity about different perspectives. We may not always agree, and that is okay.

I challenge my philanthropic colleagues to lean into our discomfort, ask the tough questions, think independently and truly engage in a real conversation about where we are as a country and how we can best move forward to help communities in need.