Vu Le’s blog Nonprofit AF provides an excellent window into the nonprofit sector’s state of mind, as we near Election Day 2020. He opened a recent post this way:

If you’re asking me why I’m talking about politics on a nonprofit blog, I need you to shut the hell up. Believing that nonprofit and philanthropy are somehow separate from or above politics is how we’ve been complicit in perpetuating unjust systems. And yet we keep doing this. Last week, I gave a keynote virtually where I reminded folks that kids are still in cages, that Black people are still being killed by the police, that Indigenous women are still missing and murdered, and that everything is still being controlled by rich old white dudes and we need to get more women of color elected into office. In the chat stream was a sniveling remark along the lines of “Wow, this presentation did not need to be so political.”

The injunction to “shut the hell up” about the dangers of politicizing philanthropy comes a bit late for me, since the callouses on my fingertips come from two decades of typing about precisely that. (For just one of many Chronicle of Philanthropy op-eds to this effect, see this.) Vu Le need not worry; my own “sniveling remarks” have had no effect whatsoever.

What’s notable about the degree of politicization Le demands for the nonprofit sector is precisely that it’s not notable at all. I dare say the leadership and staff of the overwhelming majority of non-explicitly-conservative American foundations (a very small number indeed) are fully on board with Le’s agenda. 

He summarizes it this way: “We need to ensure Biden/Harris are elected and the Senate is majority blue, then expand the Supreme Court, set term limits, grant statehood to DC and Puerto Rico, pass the Voting Rights Act, end the filibuster, and get rid of the electoral college, among other things.” The only quibble among philanthropists might be over how openly to embrace and pursue such goals, not about their ultimate worth. 

Perhaps few would be as direct as Le in an earlier blog post: “If we truly believe [the election of 2020] is critical, we need a pledge of 600 foundations promising to give funds to stop Trump’s and McConnell’s reelection ….” But neither would many question the sentiment.  

Ellen Dorsey and Darren Walker recently praised foundations for having “committed hundreds of millions to nonpartisan efforts, such as national vote-by-mail efforts, educational campaigns, registration campaigns, and get-out-the-vote drives aimed at underrepresented.” They add their own call for foundations and nonprofits to provide paid leave on Election Day for staff to vote and volunteer.  Shying away from Le’s heated rhetoric, they may describe these efforts in anodyne, nonpartisan language—but it’s clear which presidential campaign they’re intended to benefit.

Sooner or later

As futile as two decades of relentless typing have shown it to be, I’ll just say this once again to progressives who now seek to throw the nonprofit sector fully and explicitly into presidential politics. The line between philanthropy and politics is indeed very porous, as you are now demonstrating with your thinly veiled partisan expenditures. But sooner or later, the public and its Congressional representatives will notice that the solicitude and financial incentives they extend to charity—however unsophisticated their understanding of charity may be—are being abused for partisan ends. And they will not be amused.

That’s the story behind most measures in our history seeking to reign in philanthropic activities, from the Johnson Amendment to the Tax Reform Act of 1969. More recently, in 2017, Congress approved taxes on college endowments and excessive nonprofit executive salaries. Though seemingly minor, these measures breached the hitherto-sacrosanct precincts of endowed institutions, signifying growing legislative dissatisfaction with nonprofits. Yet those new taxes are but minor temblors compared to what may follow the manifest partisan excesses of Election 2020.

The more-important lesson of Vu Le’s remarks, though, needs to be learned by conservatives, who seem to understand so little about the contemporary state of American philanthropy. Note that Le does not make his demands upon just progressive philanthropy. He directs them toward philanthropy as such, confident in the knowledge that most of the sector shares his progressive point of view.

Le is absolutely right to be confident. I’ve attended dozens of trade-association  meetings for the nominally non-partisan nonprofit sector during the past three decades, ranging from the Council on Foundations to Independent Sector to the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Other than my own occasional participation in panels, the overwhelming ideological tenor of these gatherings has been unremittingly progressive. 

At a Council on Foundations meeting in Denver some years ago, one of the three main thematic tracks was devoted entirely to cultivating social-justice activism. Attending a panel in the track, I listened to one of the many young and eager participants challenge the reluctance of progressive foundations to fund outright violence against oppressive institutions. Happily, another participant—from Northern Ireland—was there to suggest difficulties with that argument.

During another Council on Foundations conference in Chicago, I had the privilege of attending the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s (NCRP’s) annual awards ceremony. I was deeply impressed by the number, youth, and enthusiasm of foundation and nonprofit representatives present, celebrating successful partnerships in advancing progressive goals. In my subsequent email to NCRP president Aaron Dorfman, I congratulated him on such a lively and energetic event. And I confessed that I could not imagine any such well-attended gathering of boisterous young conservatives in the foundation world.

I still can’t imagine that. It’s not just that the totals of philanthropic dollars devoted to conservative causes are dwarfed by progressive sums. It’s that virtually every institution within philanthropy’s professional, educational, and consulting infrastructure is imbued with progressive political sentiments and staffed with progressive activists.

Yet conservatives are slow to recognize this truth. Their central doctrine is “philanthropic freedom.” They claim that this serves to protect Alexis de Tocqueville’s vision of a varied, vigorous, and decentralized American civil society. I admire and strive to cultivate that vision as well. 

But in “actual, existing” philanthropy today, that pleasing prospect has long since been replaced by an oppressively arid, progressive monoculture.

Doesn’t take long

In the desire to preserve philanthropic freedom, conservatives decline to critique the theory or practice of progressive philanthropy, fearing that this will draw unwelcome attention on the Hill. But by guarding the prerogatives of foundations to do whatever they want, they’re basically running interference for causes that are, today, almost entirely progressive. 

When it’s time to establish one of the rare explicitly conservative foundations, donors imagine that drafting carefully delineated statements of their intent will keep a foundation on the desired path. But then, seeking to be “respectable,” they staff their foundation with, or at least consult, the credentialed experts whom I’ve encountered over the years at the trade-association meetings. Their expertise includes innumerable techniques for finessing the “parchment barrier” of donor intent.

It doesn’t take long for a conservative foundation—seeking legitimacy in a comprehensively progressive institutional universe—to swing left. It’s the only sophisticated and professional way to be. And all this is before we discuss the problem of guilt-stricken heirs on the foundation board, who are intent on repentance for its rapacious capitalist origins.

Vu Le safely and rightly assumes that when he summons philanthropy per se to political activism, it will be without doubt progressive activism. Conservatives need to face this truth by acquainting themselves with the real world of contemporary philanthropy. Perhaps then they will reassess their blind loyalty to the status quo in a sector that has become completely antagonistic to their every principle.