Today, the Philanthropy Roundtable’s President & CEO Elise Westhoff was featured in The Wall Street Journal’s The Weekend Interview on the challenges of woke philanthropy, the value of donor privacy, and why philanthropic freedom is essential to effective charitable giving.
Below is an excerpt from the Journal written by Naomi Schaefer Riley and titled “The Woke Threat to Philanthropy”:
From Big Tech censorship to Fortune 500 boycotts of Republican-led states, we’ve heard a lot the past year about “woke capitalism.” A related problem is “woke philanthropy”: Activists want to tell you not only how to make your money but how to give it away.
Major foundations like Ford and Mellon and other nonprofits big and small have shifted their missions toward combating “inequity” and “systemic racism.” Museums are jettisoning board members and canceling donors who made their money in ways counter to progressive orthodoxy. Government officials are threatening the independence and privacy of philanthropists. “Donors have faced intimidation and threats of violence simply for supporting causes they believe in,” Elise Westhoff tells me.
Ms. Westhoff, 40, recently began her second year as president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, an organization of philanthropists and foundation leaders devoted to advancing “liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility.” Another focus is ensuring that foundations remain true to their donors’ intent, rather than changing their missions to keep up with the latest political fads.
Against ideological monomania Ms. Westhoff defends the charitable impulse, which is often idiosyncratic. “I think when you start imposing those ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds,’ you really limit human generosity,” she says. “There are a lot of different kinds of people in this country, and there are a lot of people in need. And, by the way, there are people who want to help animals, and they should be able to do that. And people who want to work on climate change.” She attributes the scope and success of American philanthropy to the freedom to “find unique causes [we] care about and invest in those causes.”
Increasingly, there are calls for the government to direct the flow of charitable dollars. Ms. Westhoff has spoken out against the Initiative to Accelerate Charitable Giving and the self-described Patriotic Millionaires, which urge Congress to mandate foundations and donor-advised funds to pay out their accounts more quickly.
The rationale behind many of these efforts seems to be that the government acquires an interest in your charitable contribution by allowing you to deduct it from taxable income. “To suggest that somehow because you get a deduction, now the government gets to tell you everything about it is misguided,” Ms. Westhoff says, “and is not true in other parts of the tax code.” If you take out a mortgage to remodel your house, you can deduct the interest. But the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t get to vet your architect.
Besides, when it comes to helping people in need, charities do better than the government, Ms. Westhoff says.
The pandemic also showed the benefits of what Ms. Westhoff calls philanthropy’s “long-term play.” Donations for medical research have accelerated in recent years. Ms. Westhoff—another of whose past jobs was director of funding for neuroscience at Indiana University’s School of Medicine—says many of those big donations “were foundational for success” in developing Covid vaccines.
Imagine if, a decade ago, left-leaning foundation heads and politicians had succeeded in the quick diversion of massive charitable resources to “social justice” initiatives. Donors would have had a lot less to spend during the pandemic. But few in the nonprofit world will point that out—perhaps because they’re afraid of suffering the fate that has met nonprofit board members for being insufficiently woke.
Please continue reading The Weekend Interview at wsj.com (paywalled).
Ms. Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal on July 16, 2021.