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Online Murdock Trust conversation features lively exchanges.

Philanthropy Roundtable president and chief executive officer Elise Westhoff, Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) president Phil Buchanan, and Independent Sector president and chief executive officer Dan Cardinali participated in a very lively online conversation about philanthropy convened by the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust earlier today.

Westhoff and Buchanan in particular had some particularly pointed exchanges, arising out of recent op-eds, blog posts, and Twitter comments and threads they have each recently written about the state of philanthropy in the country’s current political and social climate.

In April, for example, Westhoff wrote “How Philanthropy is Fueling American Division” for National Review and “People-focused philanthropy is on the way out. A philanthropy that divides is taking over” for USA Today. “Philanthropy’s embrace of left-wing ideology is damaging and dividing America,” according to her National Review piece.

With Bradley Foundation president and chief executive officer Richard Graber, who chairs the Roundtable, moreover, Westhoff also wrote a letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy in response to an op-ed it published by Giving Review co-editor Bill Schambra and former foundation executive Craig Kennedy about policy proposals to increase charitable giving. In the letter, Graber and Westhoff called the op-ed “neither principled nor pragmatic” and “dangerously wrong.”

In May, Buchanan responded to Westhoff’s USA Today article on philanthropy and division with a lengthy Twitter thread and then to the collection of her and Graber’s recent contributions with a pointed post on CEP’s site, “Backlash: A Sharp Right Turn by a Philanthropy Member Organization.” “The shift at the Philanthropy Roundtable is pronounced enough that I think it deserves discussion,” according to Buchanan in the post. “Caricature and denial of the role of racism in American history and today definitely won’t move this country forward. And it’s just wrong.”

Writings and worldviews

During the hour-long online Murdock discussion—well-moderated by Romanita Hairston-Overstreet—Westhoff said,

What I’ve been challenging in some of my writing is a worldview that puts people into different identity groups, and all of the consequences that I think go along with that. We may not agree on the exact language here, but to me what I’m seeing is something that boils down to creating a society with two groups. There are victims and there are oppressors. I think that’s the problem with identity politics, and sometimes I think philanthropy is using that to pick winners and losers—and in doing that, I’m worried that we’re abandoning our shared goal of helping all people to thrive.

Buchanan said “I was disappointed” by Westhoff’s and Graber’s writing and the “decision that’s been made clearly to target foundations like Ford and Mellon and equate their focus on combating racism with the neglect of poor whites or the rejection of capitalism. I think this is really troubling because it’s divisive and it’s false. …

“It feels like facts don’t matter,” he added. “They’re using right-wing talking points about Critical Race Theory and wokeism and actually dividing, rather than seeking the common ground that Elise spoke of.”

After quoting some specific language from the piece, Buchanan said,

I’m not naïve. I know these are the talking points of some on the far right, including many in the national Republican party who have hitched themselves to Donald Trump. Principled conservatives, like those among the donors and foundations who work with CEP as clients and who fund us, believe it is crucial to acknowledge the reality—and it is a reality—of systemic racism, both historically and in contemporary America, and to seek to dismantle it.

Near the end of his initial remarks, he said, “Look, debate is healthy. Critique is good. But only when it’s rooted in fact, and every single one of those pieces was fundamentally inaccurate.”

Westhoff explicitly acknowledged and condemned racism, extremism, and hate, saying to Buchanan that “I think you’re putting words into my mouth and making assumptions that are not accurate.”

Coming conversation

Later in the discussion, when it turned to potential upcoming philanthropy reform, Westhoff underscored that the Roundtable “would protect and fight for anyone’s right to give how, when, and where they choose, regardless of whether we agree.”

Referencing the Roundtable’s response to certain proposed reforms to increase charitable giving, Buchanan said “I was surprised by the sort of instinctive ‘don’t-touch-anything’ kind of reaction … The current regulatory framework”—including the charitable deduction, which is not in the Bill of Rights, he noted—“might not be perfect for the moment.” There “should be a conversation. … I’m not sure why there was such a sort of rush to say ‘no, don’t change anything.’”

Cardinali concluded by noting that “the sector has not had a transparent, open, collective conversation about any of this” and “I think now is the time to have a full-bodied, public conversation ….”


Update: A video of the entire discussion is now available online.

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