Six months of the Trump presidency have been a godsend to the left: environmental organizations, civil rights groups, and above all Planned Parenthood, are choking on contributions. His and his administration’s threats to shutter NPR, NEA and other liberal darlings, though quite worrisome, are of slightly less moment. NPR nationally does not rely on federal money for most of its revenue; local stations are strong fundraisers. NEA is but a pimple on the great backside of government. The real fright is that cutting or eliminating it will have a terrible effect in small or mid size communities with less fundraising capacity or opportunity.
An upside, though, is that many state legislators at local, state and federal levels will fight for those funds. They are very well attuned to the effect of bad news on incumbency. Cutting and slashing are great – in someone else’s district.
Meanwhile, we now live in an alternative universe: Robin Dooh steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Repealing Obamacare and giving a tax cut to the super wealthy has — for now — been sent down the Ganges. But as always in Republication administrations, whether one calls it the Laffer curve voodoo economics, or the supply side market at work — coupled with a refusal to ever learn from what came before — punishing the poor for being poor is a blood sport. The difference this time is that Trump’s fixation on erasing Obama from the collective memory puts his overt racism, his birtherism obsession, his anti-Muslim travel ban and his hatred of the poor (losers) in one steaming cauldron of know-nothing hate.
Yet, the fight over health care reform has overshadowed a larger crisis: federal, and by devolution, state and local support of human services is tanking. There is no way the whole of private philanthropy, even if it were totally directed to relief of the abject poor — which it is not and never has been — can take up the slack.
In 2016, Giving USA Foundation reports charitable contributions totaled $395 billion. A bit over 12% went to human services. Typically, social service budgets are 80 to 90% government funded; the rest is endowment income for the lucky few, maybe a bit of earned income for others – and philanthropy. Most social service agencies are small, lack powerful boards and the attending cachet that attracts money. Plus, as pass throughs for government money, many have not been incentivized to raise private dollars; many don’t know how. In 2015, 45 million Americans, 14.5%, lived below the poverty line. That percentage, according to the US Census Bureau (whose funding is being cut), is not going down.
Recently, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos asked how he should direct his philanthropy to maximum effect. Scores of well intended multibillionaires have pledged to give at least half their fortunes to philanthropy; younger, hipper donors have ideas (some strikingly original, others not so much) for structural change in how to give, to whom to give, and how to measure results.
However, in my opinion we cannot simply give our way out of the profound imbalance in American society, exacerbated by the Trumpeters. The industry trade associations lack the convening power this situation demands and they (we) are a pretty cautious bunch, afraid to stand up, fearful of offending or antagonizing anyone, suffering in whispers. To the extent that there is a leadership cadre out there: the Pledgers, the next several levels down of high impact donors, the large foundations, community leaders, etc. we need to get together and sound the tocsin. The message is simple: our federal government needs to be back in the game. Philanthropy is a partner not a solution.
The good news is that our democracy is not fragile. It is resilient. I believe the extraordinary genius of checks and balances will prevail.