Elise Westhoff Gives Address at Philanthropy Roundtable 2021 Annual Meeting
Philanthropy Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff kicked off the organization’s Annual Meeting last week in Colorado Springs, Colo., with a welcome address that highlighted the Roundtable’s long-standing commitment to the values of liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility and philanthropy's role in ensuring that every American has the chance to succeed and thrive. She discussed some of the pivotal moments that led her to a career in philanthropy and laid out the Roundtable’s vision for building a vibrant American philanthropic movement that strengthens our free society. She also offered ways our donor community can work together to empower those who are struggling and counter challenges that philanthropists and nonprofits are facing today.
Full remarks as prepared for delivery:
Welcome! It is truly an honor to be here in person with all of you. I’m grateful to be here with such an incredible group of people.
So why are we here?
For me, it goes back to the kitchen table when I was four years old.
The night before, I watched my father get arrested. And it was also one of the last times that I ever saw him. He suffered from severe mental illness. And he was abusive.
My mom sat down with my brother and me at the kitchen table the following morning and shared a life lesson that still guides me today.
She looked at us, held our hands, and in that warm, reassuring tone she always used even when things were bad, she said, “In life, you aren’t always dealt the best hand. But you never fold and walk away. You play what you have to the best of your ability. You work harder and smarter. And you have faith that the next hand will be better than the last.”
At the most difficult moment of her life, my mother had the courage and the clarity to instill wisdom and show compassion.
She wanted us to know that our experiences don’t define us. We have the power to chart our own path.
This was all reinforced when she met my stepdad, who loved and raised us as his own.
My stepdad grew up poor in rural Indiana. His father was absent – in prison. And his mom deserted him when he was just 15. My stepdad was destined for a very tough life.
But one family in his community believed in him and they gave him an invaluable privilege.
They shared the keys he would need to unlock his potential: hard work, education, faith.
Despite the odds, my stepdad built a productive and meaningful life. He became the first in his family to go to college and had a successful career.
He’s famous for dropping everything to help his family and friends – fixing a sink or painting a room.
And he still makes time to help those in need. He’s a regular volunteer for Habitat and at a home for kids with autism.
The lessons I learned in my youth led me to this room. They’re why I care so deeply about the Roundtable’s values. Liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility empower people and uplift communities.
I’ve seen it firsthand. I was drawn to philanthropy because I want to share the privilege I was given with others who are struggling. We all have our own unique journey that led us here to this room today.
Moments that defined us and shaped our beliefs. These moments inspire us to fight for a better world where every person has the opportunity to thrive and the freedom to pursue the life they want to lead.
They’ve led us to be part of this community. The Philanthropy Roundtable is building a vibrant American philanthropic movement that strengthens our free society.
We are a network of compassionate, committed and effective donors who promote America’s founding principles, create pathways to opportunity and strengthen communities.
We believe in the power of philanthropy and voluntary private action rather than one-size-fits all government solutions to address many of society’s most pressing challenges.
And we know that the free market system in America generates the wealth that makes philanthropy possible.
The success of American philanthropy is based on the freedom to find the unique causes we care about and invest in them.
The diversity of causes that we support reflects the diversity of this great country. It’s what makes civil society strong. Each donor must have the freedom to give how, when and where they choose. It spurs generosity. The last year has demonstrated just how generous this country is.
That is why we are your advocates for philanthropic freedom.
Whether you’re passionate about mental health, education, poverty alleviation or policies that advance liberty, we’re here to be your trusted resource for effective charitable giving that advances our values.
I don’t have to tell you that we are living in challenging times. The values we hold dear are under attack. The principles that America was built on are misunderstood and even maligned.
The larger cultural battles we face as a country are playing out in philanthropy too. Activists pushing identity politics have hijacked the foundation of philanthropy -- and it is hurting the people we need to help.
They’re creating a system of victims and oppressors based on immutable characteristics, where merit and reason are harmful, and we have no ability to shape our own destiny.
These activists silence and shame people who believe in equality of opportunity and don’t adopt a far-left political agenda.
Discussion on how to best help communities in need has been shut down.
And to force everyone to comply, there are legislative efforts at the state and the federal levels to restrict charitable giving and undermine donor privacy.
Activists want to control how, when and where you give: forcing arbitrary timelines on donor-advised funds, discouraging family members from becoming involved in their own foundations, telling you who to have on your board and your staff and what communities you must serve.
And that’s why we’ve been boldly speaking out: advocating for the need for real dialogue and a diversity of causes and approaches to help people in need regardless of their skin color, gender or sexual orientation; sharing the ways that liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility uplift people of all colors, creeds and backgrounds and rejecting the idea that there is only way to give and that only certain communities are deserving of support.
And an amazing thing has happened since we started speaking up. That movement is growing.
People across the country have come to us and expressed gratitude for creating a space for these important conversations.
We’ve heard from the head of a ballet company. He’s been pressured to make political statements that have nothing to do with his work. And he was threatened when he decided to focus on his core mission of creating beautiful art. He was incredibly grateful to find us and has now found his voice and a community here.
We heard from a board member of a camp for disadvantaged kids in rural America. The camp struggled to get funding for impoverished children because they don’t check the right demographic boxes. She thanked us for speaking up on behalf of the kids who desperately deserve a chance.
We are creating a space for people who are afraid to speak. We are inspiring them and others to have courage.
These individuals are part of our movement – and they give me hope.
This is why we started a new initiative to promote what we call True Diversity, a campaign that celebrates the rich identities and characteristics that make each person unique and special, where we value each individual, appreciate the mission, seek diverse perspectives, embrace conversation, foster self-reliance and community.
Despite all of the pressure and efforts to curtail our work, the Roundtable community – all of you – remain strong.
You’ve continued the incredible work you’ve done for decades. You’ve worked to ensure that every child, whether they are from the inner city or rural America, has access to a quality education by fighting for school choice.
You’ve advocated for criminal justice policies that balance safety and individual rights.
You’ve provided training to help adults find meaningful work and break the cycle of poverty for their families.
You’ve fought for a vision of what America can be: a country with justice, liberty and equality for every human being.
All of you in this room have pursued creative and innovative efforts that help people change the trajectories of their lives.
Over the next few days, we will hear powerful stories from influential leaders.
We’re honored and thrilled to host Gov. Kristi Noem and former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who will join us to talk about the power of charitable giving and how it relates to public policy. We’ll hear from thoughtful and compelling nonprofit leaders who are strengthening their communities.
And we will recognize the principled and generous Bill Oberndorf with the inaugural Simon-Devos Prize, two devoted and compassionate families coming together to honor philanthropists who have shown exemplary leadership.
We’re also excited to celebrate Philanthropy Roundtable’s 30th birthday this year. You might have noticed we’re getting a new look to match our bold voice. And our commitment to our mission and values is as strong as ever.
We’ll honor the Roundtable’s history and accomplishments at the 30th anniversary session on Friday.
We’re grateful to have two former Roundtable leaders with us this week, two giants in philanthropy, Kim Dennis and Adam Meyerson. Thank you both for everything you’ve done to make this organization what it is today. And personally, your friendship and advice has been invaluable to me.
These are just a few of the many philanthropists, thought leaders and organizations that you’ll be hearing from this week.
This is a pivotal moment. The challenges we face are significant. Yet when I look around this room, I am filled with hope.
I see a group of people committed to shared values. I see people who are courageous and who stand up for what they believe in.
I see people who are making progress on solving some of our nation’s most pressing problems.
All of the people in this room are your partners. We have the power of a community behind us. We can meet this moment as a cohesive movement.
Together we can put effective ideas into action – and the time is now. We are collaborators, strategic thinkers. And we’re a team.
We are unique. We’re not afraid to ask tough questions, dive in, engage, embrace discomfort. We’re not here to virtue-signal. We’re here to solve problems and help people rise.
I started off talking about where my journey started, at four years old at the kitchen table. I invite all of you to pause and think back to the moments that shaped your beliefs.
Our values bring us together around a common purpose. They are proven and have stood the test of time. They are a source of hope for our country and our world.
These next few days will reinforce that you are part of a movement at a critical time. We are strengthening our country, making society more free and empowering individuals to succeed.
Our values improve lives. And we are better together.
Thank you for being a part of this community. Thank you for the important work that all of you do. Thank you for sharing your valuable time with us this week.