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5 Questions for...Chris Gates, Executive Vice President for External Affairs, Council on Foundations

January 10, 2017

Shortly after the 2016 election, the Council on Foundations announced it had hired veteran nonprofit executive Chris Gates as executive vice president for external affairs, a new position. Gates, a former president of the National Civic League, executive director of the council's Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) affinity group, and president of the Sunlight Foundation, had joined the council as a senior advisor earlier in the year, and for many the hire was a clear signal that the council was determined to strengthen and energize its government relations efforts in preparation for the Trump era.

Recently, PND spoke with Gates about his new role and what he — and the council — can do to help its members prepare for the next four years. 

Philanthropy News Digest: There were a lot of issues and themes in play during the recent election, including the concentration of wealth at the top of the global economy, a disturbing ratcheting up of racial tensions here in the United States, and a rise in populist sentiment across the developed world. Is philanthropy doing enough to address inequality and the hollowing out of the American middle class? Or might it be, as some have argued, part of the problem?

Headshot_Chris Gates_PTChris Gates: Well, it's definitely not part of the problem. Inequality, economic disruption, racial inequities are all areas where organized philanthropy has been very active. Now on problems of that scope and scale, you probably can never do enough; there's always room to do more. But I think it's important that we listen to voices that we haven't been paying attention to and to hear perspectives that haven't been included in our conversations.

I know there's been a lot of introspection in our field since the election. In fact, we had a conference call the day after the election with a bunch of our members where people were trying to process what they were hearing, what they needed to do differently, and what they needed to do more of. Then, a couple of weeks later, we hosted a webinar for funders that I believe attracted the largest audience we've ever had for a webinar, more than six hundred people. I think a great many funders have been thinking about how they can increase the impact of their work, where they might need to double down, and where they need to make changes and adjustments. So, no, I don't think you can ever do enough to address the kinds of big issues you mentioned, but I do think organized philanthropy has been in an active listening mode since the election, and I believe it will be very responsive in the weeks and months to come.

PND: Can you share anything with our readers from those conversations?

CG: As far as philanthropic organizations in general are concerned, there was a lot of conversation about economic insecurity and how that was reflected by candidates on both the left and right. It is not a partisan issue, and there was probably more agreement than disagreement among the various nonprofit leaders we spoke to about what needs to be done. It's also an issue that requires new thinking and additional focus from all of us, because clearly it's a concern for many, many people in this country.

There also was a lot of conversation about the racial tensions that exist in this country, as well as a recognition that philanthropy may be one of the few sectors well suited to help people address those tensions, either by funding organizations and people who are trying different things to bring people together, or by using our convening power to encourage dialogue and conversation.

PND: There are a number of issues of interest to the nonprofit sector that appear to be in the crosshairs of the incoming Trump administration, including immigration, energy, and reproductive rights. What kind of role do you expect the council to play in helping to shape the sector's response to administration policy and congressional legislation in the months to come?

CG: Well, those certainly are three issues where the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are active, but you could have easily named a hundred more. If you look at the breadth of the work that philanthropy funds, and the breadth of what the nonprofit sector does, it literally covers the entire spectrum of issues in this country. And in anticipation of the role the council plans to play, we have beefed up our government relations function, added new staff, and created a newly enlarged external affairs team.

I will say this: this is a time of change, a time when old norms are being thrown out the window. And while we haven't been presented with specific policy proposals yet, we are prepared to make sure that organized philanthropy's voice is included in all these conversations and are working closely with other organizations, including the Philanthropy Roundtable and Independent Sector, to ensure that the nonprofit and philanthropic communities are working together to advance a shared agenda.

Now, to make sure our voices are heard by the new administration and by Congress, we will be having individual meetings with staff in every congressional office over the next hundred days. We believe it's important to bring our engagement down to a personal level — state by state and district by district — so that legislators and congressional staff are able to connect the work of the sector to things that happen in their districts and states.

PND: On several occasions during President Obama's two terms in office, his administration proposed a cap on deductions, including charitable deductions, for the wealthiest Americans. Were those efforts misguided, and do you think the incoming administration will succeed where the Obama administration failed?

CG: It's true that a cap on deductions came up in some conversations along the way, but, frankly, it never seemed to me like it was a priority for the Obama administration, and it was never something they pushed particularly hard. Now, obviously, President-elect Trump said some things during the campaign that would suggest he has certain ideas about lowering marginal rates and eliminating the estate tax. But we need to wait and see what actually emerges from any tax reform proposal. If we have learned anything since the election, it's that Trump is not afraid to walk back from some of the more controversial things he said during the campaign. The council is a strong and aggressive supporter of the charitable deduction and of leaving it as it is, but as I say, we need to see what actually emerges out of Congress.

That said, even if proposals to change or cap the charitable deduction go nowhere, we will be making the case that when you lower marginal rates and reduce or eliminate the estate tax, at some level it reduces the value of the charitable deduction by lowering the incentive for people to make charitable gifts.

PND: What other advice would you offer to civil society and nonprofit advocacy groups as they prepare for what could be a rather contentious couple of years?

CG: Well, again, I would say that it's really important for us to listen. And to listen, in particular, to perspectives that may not align with our own. Second, I think it's really important for all of us to keep our antennae up. There's a lot going on and lots of different ideas being presented and discussed. Third, it's important for people to speak out. If proposals are floated that run counter to the values an organization holds dear, it is critically important that people stand up and do whatever they can to make sure their voices are heard. And lastly, I'd say that we need to make sure we're in the conversation. That's why the council has such an aggressive plan with respect to the new Congress and is working with other organizations that also have aggressive plans. We think it's more important than ever for our sector to be as involved and engaged as people are comfortable being. The next few years are likely to be a tumultuous time, and as you suggest, there's a lot at stake.

— Matt Sinclair

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