Philanthropy is an inherently optimistic endeavor. It embodies a belief in progress, in the capacity of investment to make a difference and in the hope for a better future. But that optimism is challenged in times such as these. A dreary political season ushered in an even more dreadful year, as the news from Washington, D.C. lurches from bewildering to outrageous to sad. Who does not cringe at the incessant drumbeat of name-calling, intolerance and scandal? It is nearly impossible to take in, let alone to fully comprehend.
Reactions to this state of affairs surely vary but one response that we in philanthropy cannot afford is paralysis.
Foundations are fortunate to have both resources and tremendous flexibility to attack society’s challenges. These benefits give us an obligation to speak out on the issues that are important to us. Foundations typically speak through their grants, and we can amplify our voice when we support advocates for sensible public policy. The George Gund Foundation has long supported building a nonprofit voice in public policy deliberations at all levels of government. Now, with a radically altered federal policy environment, we have increased our support for organizations that defend access to essential human needs, ranging from clean energy to health care.
Highly capable nonprofit advocates work the corridors of government and lift the voices of those impacted on these issues. In Washington, D.C., they include the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for Community Change, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Brookings Institution and many others. On state policy matters, they include the Center for Community Solutions, Policy Matters Ohio, and the Ohio Environmental Council among others.
While we have supported organizations such as these for years, we began increasing our support in 2017 because of the sudden threat to so many policies that affect all of our work, especially on the ground in Cleveland where our grantmaking is focused.
One of the ugliest aspects of the current political climate is the surge in hate speech and crimes aimed at vulnerable minorities. In response, we have increased grantmaking to the Equality Ohio Education Fund, the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress’s work to train community leaders through the Racial Equity Institute.
Among the disturbing policy directions now flowing from Washington, the new administration’s position on climate change may be the most consequential. It exemplifies a willingness to ignore scientific and economic facts. It sacrifices American global leadership. It undermines our country’s reputation as the leader in entrepreneurship and innovation, with long-term damage to our economy. And, of course, it ignores the threat climate change poses to humanity, beginning with the most defenseless people, many of whom will become climate refugees seeking safety elsewhere. Even on a global issue of this magnitude, regionally focused foundations can and should engage. In our case, we have increased our collaboration with groups like the Energy Foundation and the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum to push for common sense action.
Foundations also have means to directly express their views as investors and we have used that role to push for corporate action on climate change. For example, working with the nonprofit shareholder advisor As You Sow, we were the lead filer on a climate change resolution at the annual meeting of Devon Energy, a company with particularly close ties to the new administration in Washington. The resolution garnered 41% of the votes.
We are not done. These steps are a continuation of our belief that democracy benefits from a vigorous nonprofit voice, including from foundations. And during this acutely uncomfortable era, we know that voice is especially vital. We are exploring additional ways we can invest in strengthening our democracy. We urge more foundations to make their voices heard as all of us in philanthropy hold fast to the optimism that should animate our work.