April 13, 2023
By Heather Templeton Dill, Kathleen Enright, Sam Gill, Brian Hooks, Darren Walker, Elise Westhoff
The United States has a strong, globally respected tradition of independent philanthropy that includes and is exemplified by the nation’s private foundations.
This tradition is woven into the tapestry of U.S. democracy, which alongside government and business encompasses a large and diverse civil society made up of varying forms of association and collaboration—nonprofit service organizations, organized religion, community groups, civic organizations and more. Each of these sectors—government, business, and civil society—plays a role in keeping communities healthy and vital.
Historically, the role of philanthropy in civil society has been premised on the notion that truly independent financial capital dedicated to the public good is critical to national progress. Philanthropy can focus on issues that sometimes fall off the public agenda. Philanthropy can take risks on ideas that may be overlooked. And philanthropy can support multiple — and even conflicting — ideas and solutions intended to respond to fraught, thorny, and sometimes controversial issues.
Lately though, American politics has denigrated the value of such pluralistic approaches.
Some of the stress on pluralism is stylistic, but much is substantive. Many of the issues that divide America are real and consequential. When it comes to issues such as race, wealth, climate, and religion, the stakes are high. And, as the stakes grow, so too do the perceived costs of engagement — or even toleration — of people, views, and ideas on the other side of ever brighter lines of division.
The result of these pressures, however meritorious and morally urgent, is that foundations and philanthropists are often expected to pledge allegiance to one or another narrow set of prescribed views.
Each of us represents foundations and individual donors with different — and strongly held — points of view on issues of fundamental importance to society. Yet together we recognize that philanthropy provides the greatest value when donors enable and encourage pluralism by supporting and investing in a wide and diverse range of values, missions, and interests.
Philanthropy plays an essential role in shaping the marketplace of ideas. The reasons why a foundation supports a particular issue or cause often influences how a foundation distributes its funds. And these differences reflect the diverse sensibilities, beliefs, and values that make up America’s pluralistic society.
During these turbulent times, diversity in philanthropic giving can help shape and inform discussions about the most important issues of the day. It is through this diversity that philanthropy can proffer, study, and test a multiplicity of ideas and approaches to confront society’s greatest challenges.
To do this well, philanthropy can — and should — become skilled at effectively engaging in disagreements on approach or even outcomes. This is because, as stark and rancorous as our social divisions may be, to best serve society we must commit to productive, not destructive, negotiation.
Not all social and political agendas are morally equivalent. But every agenda includes a range of considerations that would benefit from the interplay among a wide range of ideas and sentiments. In the marketplace of ideas, the best ones may not always or inevitably rise to the top. But to at least stand a chance, they must be forged in the fire of a dynamic and open marketplace.
The history of philanthropy is a history of using private capital to supplement, not replace, other approaches to investing in and supporting a prosperous and just society. A critical way philanthropy does this is by helping to make pluralism possible. Philanthropy as a whole makes its greatest contribution to democracy when each foundation or donor engages in the unfettered pursuit of their own mission, interests, and prerogatives.
At a time when the nation’s commitment to pluralism is strained, the six of us renew our commitment to philanthropic pluralism and encourage our peers to do the same by embracing a truly healthy independent philanthropic sector that:
- Demonstrates a wide range of views and perspectives on the most important issues confronting democracy and society.
- Benefits from the open and authentic contributions of its constituents.
- Encourages consensus around common values, such as respect and open inquiry, as well as disagreement on contested issues of societal significance.
We propose the following principles to help guide a rigorous and respectful discourse among philanthropies, especially those who approach issues from different perspectives:
- We recognize and affirm the right and prerogative of foundations and philanthropists to take programmatic or public stances in accordance with their best judgment. And while it is appropriate for any donor to question or challenge another’s views, we should not question the underlying legitimacy of any foundation or philanthropist holding a particular view.
- We behave as if the foundations and individual donors who take stances with which we disagree are also committed to the betterment of society. We assume that those involved in philanthropy have the best intentions in mind, even if they take a different approach.
- When we challenge another’s views or activities, we focus on substantive arguments and invite response. While disagreements may be profound — even fundamental — we believe that public debates should rely on reason and open conversation. We discourage practices such as personal or ad hominem attacks because we regard them as unhelpful to productively advancing knowledge within a pluralistic society.
- We seek to approach disagreements with respect. Respect does not imply acceptance of a view or even commitment to a common resolution. It does recognize our common dignity. We take seriously the questions that some might raise about our perspectives, public positions, and programs. We believe critique of what we do is an opportunity for us all to learn.
- We reject efforts by anyone to circumscribe or proscribe the programmatic prerogatives of donors or their foundations, so long as the exercise of those prerogatives conforms with the law.
Foundations exist in other nations and contexts, but they are in many ways a quintessential American institution. At a time of unprecedented stress on our institutions, we invite our peers in the field to join us in affirming and putting these commitments into practice as we work together to keep America’s independent philanthropic tradition alive, vital, and relevant.
Heather Templeton Dill is president and CEO of the John Templeton Foundation.
Kathleen Enright is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations.
Samsher (Sam) Singh Gill is president and CEO of the Doris Duke Foundation.
Brian Hooks is chairman and CEO of Stand Together.
Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.
Elise Westhoff is president and CEO of the Philanthropy Roundtable.
This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.