Independent Women’s Forum Highlights Elise Westhoff’s Work to Protect Philanthropy

This week, Independent Women’s Forum, a national women’s organization devoted to advancing freedom, opportunity and well-being, featured a profile on its website of Philanthropy Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff. This piece highlighted Westhoff’s strong stance against “woke philanthropy” and the Roundtable’s continuing work to defend philanthropic freedom and protect donor intent. The Roundtable is honored that IWF has recognized Westhoff as one of its “Champion Women.” 

Below are excerpts from the Independent Women’s Forum profile on Westhoff:

“Lately … commonsense ideas have become controversial in the philanthropy world. Indeed, Westhoff has observed a disturbing trend in the philanthropic field: a shift by many organizations away from an emphasis on generosity and helping people live meaningful lives towards what has been dubbed ‘woke philanthropy.’ ‘Woke philanthropy’ directs efforts towards such goals as ending ‘systemic racism’ and ‘inequity.’ Prestigious grant makers such as the Mellon and Ford Foundations are trailblazers in woke philanthropy.

Westhoff took sides with an April 2021 USA Today column headlined ‘People-focused philanthropy is on the way out. A philanthropy that divides us is taking over.’ It did not endear her to woke philanthropy advocates. ‘No doubt [the woke] approach is well-intentioned,’ Westhoff wrote. ‘In a recent ‘60 Minutes’ interview, one of America’s most prominent philanthropists, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, described it as a shift from generosity to justice. The head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has historically been the largest supporter of the arts and humanities, announced that all future grants will focus on ‘social justice.’’

Westhoff’s column attracted a great deal of attention, immediately becoming controversial. She had to write it, though. ‘I felt inspired to write the USA Today piece,’ Westhoff tells IWF, ‘because I was drawn to philanthropy and to the nonprofit world because of experiences that my own family faced overcoming challenges. After spending many years in this sector, I have seen a huge shift in how people are approaching the job of philanthropy, which in my view is to help equip struggling people and communities with the tools they need to overcome challenges. Those things include hard work, education, faith, and personal responsibility. And, unfortunately, in the philanthropic sector, what we now see is really a lot of money being spent and a lot of focus on increasing the role of government and promoting this worldview of victim and oppressor where there are winners and losers based on things like your skin color, and your gender, and your sexual orientation.’

‘It’s a disempowering view of the world and not one that the Philanthropy Roundtable and I share,’ she continues. ‘I really truly believe that people have the power to overcome challenges and that we’re very lucky to live in a country that allows us so much freedom and opportunity, and that the best way to help people is to share the values of liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility and instill those in people who are struggling.

As part of this effort to focus on people rather than ‘identities,’ the Philanthropy Roundtable put out an impressive video on ‘true diversity’ narrated by Vivek Ramaswamy, bestselling author, entrepreneur, and self-described critic of the woke-industrial complex. ‘According to some, you and I are each defined by the characteristics we inherited on the day we were born,’ Ramaswamy says. ‘When I look at my neighbor, I am expected to see not my neighbor but my black neighbor. I reject that narrative. I am the author of my own destiny, sometimes for the best and sometimes for the worst.’ ‘True diversity,’ as Ramaswamy makes clear, is more complicated—and more rewarding—than pigeonholing people in identity group boxes.

Another goal of the Philanthropy Roundtable is preserving donor intent. We all know about famous foundations that are doing the exact opposite of what the founders who set up and funded these institutions long ago intended. The colloquial expression ‘turning in her grave’ comes to mind when we think what founders would think if they could see the uses to which their funds are now being put. The Philanthropy Roundtable works to ensure that foundations can’t be ‘captured’ by officers who have disregard for donor intent.

‘One of the key areas of focus of the Roundtable is helping donors understand the importance of capturing what they intend to do with their money so that the missions and values of the founder will be reflected in perpetuity,’ Westhoff explains. ‘We have seen, obviously, really egregious examples of foundations not being managed in any way, shape, or form according to the founders’ values. Some of the very big ones that would be recognizable to all of us have really gone off course. Ultimately, this falls on the founders and how they set up their institutions. You have to be very careful to make sure your money is used as you intended. Write it down, memorialize it in your bylaws and a donor intent letter, give specific examples of how you want the money to be spent.’”

Please continue reading at Independent Women’s Forum. 

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