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Few Large U.S. Foundations Changed Giving Priorities After 2016 Presidential Election

January 07, 2020

White_HouseIn early 2019, Candid asked 645 of the largest U.S. foundations whether they had changed their funding priorities in 2017 and 2018 as a result of the 2016 presidential election. The vast majority (88 percent) of the respondents said their organizations made "few or no changes" to their giving priorities during the two years following the election. About one in eight (12 percent) reported making "some notable changes."

These results differ slightly from a similar survey conducted by Exponent Philanthropy in early 2017. Nearly one-quarter of the participants in that survey — foundations with few or no staff, philanthropic families, and individual donors — said they expected to make some changes to their philanthropic giving as a direct result of Donald Trump's election.

Not surprisingly, foundations reporting "few or no changes to their giving priorities" in Candid’s 2019 survey felt little need to further explain why this was the case.  "Staying the course" was a common refrain.

Foundations that reported making "some notable changes" identified five causes in particular for which they felt additional support was needed, given shifts in the political environment: 1) immigration, 2) civic engagement/democracy, 3) equity/social justice/intolerance, 4) the environment, and 5) health care. In some cases, foundations also established "rapid response" funds to help grantees that might be facing new or urgent challenges in carrying out their work.

Foundations that made "few or no changes to their giving priorities"

Most foundations that made "few or no changes to their giving priorities" following the 2016 election felt no need to further explain why this was the case. Those that did offer explanations tended to refer to factors such as donor intent or unwavering adherence to the organizations’ respective missions or strategic plans.

  • "The foundation follows donor intent, so our grantmaking does not tend to change with political shifts."
  • "The foundation’s funds are committed to funding existing programs in our founders' areas of interest and in areas where they lived during their lifetimes."
  • Community foundation: "Most grantmaking is advised by donors or committees for specific purposes."
  • "The election had no effect on our mission so no need to change the focus."
  • "Strategic priorities are generally set by [the] board for a multiyear (10-12 years) time frame."
  • "It makes no difference which party is in control of the government. Our giving priorities are the same."

Some foundations with mandates to focus their giving within specific regions or whose giving is primarily international felt that the national political climate was largely irrelevant to their ongoing work, as did others with highly specific missions.

  • "We are aware of political dynamics but that did not change our focus on rural Minnesota."
  • "The foundation makes grants for overseas mission activities. Therefore, we are not normally affected by politics in the U.S."
  • "Our tightly defined mission serves the fields of art history and art conservation, training professionals in these fields, and supporting their research. The nature of this work has not been altered by the 2016 election."
  • "The foundation supports STEM research in higher education. Program strategies were set in prior years. Research opportunities are rarely changed by individual electoral contests but are instead shaped by wider societal trends."

For many foundations, staying the course but with an increased sense of urgency was the right course of action.

  • "Our existing priorities became more endangered/underfunded, so we stayed the course."
  • "Our focus on legal services, including immigration and social justice, predates the 2016 election by two years; we have increased funding for immigration legal services but much of what we fund has been in the cross-hairs of the current administration so staying on course is appropriate given the current environment."
  • "Our giving is focused at the state level, and our state for the last several decades has been Republican-led. A change in federal leadership has not changed the issues we have focused on — conservation, public education, and health access — but rather reiterated the importance of our work."

Some foundations noted that "staying the course" was especially important if in fact the priorities of other foundations working in the same area were shifting due to political change:

  • "Our foundation focuses exclusively on international grantmaking. Our grantmaking process is guided by our 2016-2020 strategy, which was set before the U.S. election. While other foundations have pulled their funding from international efforts, we have stayed the course, even more so because of other foundations' shifting priorities within the current political climate."
  • "During challenging political times, with many diverting their funds away from the arts towards more urgent political action, the foundation continued funding according to its mission in recognition of the role the arts play in creating a more just and empathetic society, and to avoid destabilizing grantee organizations."

A couple of foundations noted that if shifts in approach to the work were needed, those adjustments would fall more to their grantees than to the foundation:

  • "[Our] grantees were basically the same — with a couple exceptions. Their work shifted."
  • "Education and climate change remain our areas of focus. Federal policies certainly affect these areas, but they don't change our strategic priorities, so much as our grantees' response and approach."

Finally, the idea that political change could have any bearing on how a foundation sets its giving priorities was received with horror by a handful of foundations:

  • "WE STAY FAR AWAY FROM ANYTHING CLOSE TO 'POLITICS.'"
  • "I can't understand why one would ask this question. Are you suggesting a political motive? This question is an insult to our trustees."

Foundations that made "some notable changes in giving priorities after the 2016 U.S. election"

The 12 percent of surveyed foundations that said they made "some notable changes in giving priorities after the 2016 U.S. election" cited five topic areas in particular that required their urgent attention — immigration (3.1 percent), civic engagement/democracy (1.7 percent), equity/social justice/intolerance (1.6 percent), the environment (1.4 percent), and healthcare (1.2 percent). Many of these initiatives overlapped.

Immigration

  • "Launched an immigrant and refugee funder collaborative with other funders to support response to federal policy changes."
  • "The foundation granted to organizations to support staffing for DACA case management and DACA reimbursements."
  • "Yes! We added community service grants specifically to address new problems facing immigrant and minority communities."

Civic engagement/democracy

  • "We added an initiative around civil engagement to encourage more people to participate in government at all levels."
  • "We created a Democracy & Civil Society area of interest in 2017. It was funded again in 2018 and will continue for 2019."
  • "We created three time-limited 'special projects' to strengthen checks and balances within the government and in civil society. We also expanded existing programs to combat misinformation and promote trust in journalism, protect press freedom, and strengthen the security of elections. Finally, we increased our capacity for research and sensemaking through the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group and other efforts."

Equity/social justice/intolerance

  • "After the 2016 elections, the foundation's board authorized the creation of an 'Opportunity Fund' to 'create an enduring portfolio of investments that promote fairness and equity, justice, and opportunity.' The fund has been targeted, in particular, on 'efforts designed to safeguard civility and decency, advance civil rights, counteract hate, support immigrant and refugee communities, and provide legal support to underserved communities.'"
  • "Anti-conservative and anti-free speech bias on college campuses increased and giving changed to support free speech and viewpoint diversity."
  • "New focus on women's rights and social justice."

Environment

  • "Our Environment Program began to fund efforts that could rapidly respond to emergent threats to the U.S. system of environmental and public health laws, regulations, and policies."
  • "It's a temporary surge. Foundation staff have developed three strategic initiatives to which we will target these new dollars in ways that we are confident will build and engage new conservation constituencies, address immediate threats, and seize conservation opportunities across the western U.S. and Canada. In this moment, we trust this surge in funding will accelerate their work."

Health Care

  • "We continued to support organizations that were assisting with enrollment [in ObamaCare] and continued to support advocacy organizations in trying to prevent more Medicaid cuts."
  • "We focused more on policy and advocacy work for mental health and substance abuse."
  • "Due to the threat to reproductive rights and to immigrant women, we added a category for reproductive rights and immigrant women."

Other changes

Some foundations stepped up the level of giving in their existing areas of focus, while others developed "rapid response" funds:

  • "Some additional funding set aside for federal response since the new Administration had an effect in nearly all of our program areas."
  • "The election was one of several factors that indicated a need for greater capacity among some of our partners across the South. Others include policy implications that harm the communities we care about."
  • "The board authorized an increase to the foundation's Presidential Discretionary fund to provide 'additional capacity to make opportunity, one-time investments precipitated by the new political and policy environment.'"
  • "In FY17, the fund conducted a rapid response grantmaking program ($100k total) to assist current grantees to advance and/or defend the social safety net, protect vulnerable immigrants and refugees, prevent violence and hate crimes, with emphasis on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, or respond to government censorship or reputational attack."

Finally, a few foundations said that although they made some notable changes in giving priorities after the election, these actions were not related to changes in the political climate:

  • "The foundation's board approved a new mission in 2017, which resulted in some changes in giving priorities, although there was no direct correlation between this and the 2016 U.S. election."
  • "Reorganization of the foundation, new president in 2017."

Headshot_larry_mcgillLarry McGill is vice president of knowledge services at Candid. This post originally appeared on the Candid blog. To read more of his data-driven commentary, click here

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