Philanthropy must exclusively support causes that indicate a love of humanity

Funding hate has become an institutional feature of philanthropy.

Written by: Dr. Abbas Barzegar , Zainab Arain

Date: May 30, 2019

Philanthropy possesses a checkered history. It is simultaneously responsible for developing some of our country’s greatest public resources while also leaving marginalized communities in the dark.

At its worst, philanthropy has supported causes that poison our public interest. This mixed tradition continues today as some of the same philanthropies that fund vital American institutions, such as the Boy Scouts and the American Red Cross, also fuel some our country’s most anti-human, anti-social political and cultural agendas such as Islamophobia, religious intolerance and white supremacy. 

Given that as an ideal, philanthropy is rooted in a love for humanity, the findings of a series of recent reports documenting the subversion of this public good should be a bitter pill for the philanthropic community to swallow.

Using philanthropy to fund hate

Alex Kotch at Sludge exposed the way donor-advised funds (DAFs) are used to funnel money toward alt-right hate groups.

Our own recent study, “Hijacked by Hate: American Philanthropy and the Islamophobia Network,” uncovers another, deeper layer in this phenomenon.

We tracked 1,096 foundations and charities that granted $125 million to anti-Muslim special interest groups between 2014 and 2016.

These groups, understood as the Islamophobia Network, are a close-knit family of organizations that share an ideology of extreme anti-Muslim animus and work with one another to negatively influence public opinion and government policy about Muslims and Islam.

Once on the fringe of media, they now help shape federal policy and influence local municipalities. Their ability to do so comes from their seemingly unshakeable financial security.

Unfortunately, the very foundations and charitable groups that fund causes that promote the public good are also responsible for funding virulent anti-Muslim hate groups.

These include household names such as Fidelity and Schwab, as well as faith-based funders such as Jewish Communal Fund and the National Christian Charitable Foundation, and community-centered funders such as the California Community Foundation.

They also include lesser-known and more opaque private family foundations such as the Mirowski Family Foundation, which has virtually no public imprint but nonetheless contributes millions of dollars to support anti-Muslim activity.

Together, the expansive funding network revealed in the report demonstrates that the Islamophobia Network cannot be considered a marginal or passing phenomenon in American society.

Rather, it is a consistent and shameful institutional feature of American philanthropy.

Avoiding responsibility under the guise of neutrality

Of course, the question of culpability can and should be asked: Are these charities funding hate or simply doing their job on behalf of their clients, the donors whose money they are managing?

Many DAFs actively eschew responsibility, arguing that they do not take positions on such issues, and instead, simply and blindly follow the IRS designations on which groups are registered as nonprofits.

Such were the responses of Schwab and Fidelity when NPR’s Leila Fadel confronted them with the findings of our report.

The truth is that hate groups and food pantries both qualify as nonprofits. Is it acceptable or conscionable that community and commercial foundations turn a blind eye to this difference?

We cannot expect much from ideologically committed foundations, such as the Adelson and Mirowski groups, whose political legacies define them.

But we can and should expect better of facially “neutral” funders. Moreover, we should not allow groups such as the Colcom Foundation, which actively funds xenophobic and anti-immigrant groups while simultaneously supporting environmental and sustainability initiatives, to mask their deeply paradoxical giving strategies through the cover of charity.

It is imperative that commercial and community foundations develop standards and guidelines to ensure that they are contributing to, rather than subverting, the public interest.

Ultimately, these questions are the same as the ones posed to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and internet service providers: Are they simply a platform, or are they responsible for the promotion of hate?

Hate is not Charitable

Thankfully, the answers have come by way of concerted and innovative action. Social media giants are working with experts and stakeholders, through campaigns such as Change the Terms and the Christchurch Call, to take the right steps to mitigate the harm caused by hate groups on their platforms.

Similarly, there are signs that the philanthropic community is also ready to ensure that their institutions are not “Hijacked by Hate.”

The Hate is not Charitable Campaign, spearheaded by the Amalgamated Foundation, is leading the way to enlist partners committed to clearing their rosters of hate groups.  

Leading figures in philanthropy, such as Sharon Alpert, CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, are providing a much-needed voice in a sector that seems to have been caught off-guard and exploited by insidious actors.

Anti-Muslim special interest groups are, of course, only one part of a larger, more systemic problem of the way the U.S. tax code and charitable vehicles, such as DAFs, are used by the wealthy to promote the narrow interests of corporations and political elites.

However, given the audacity and impact of the Trump administration’s Islamophobic agenda and its tacit approval of the rise of the alt-right, the time is ripe to challenge the sources of bigotry and hate that have led to so much social and political polarization in our country.

What can funders do?

Philanthropy cannot stay on the sidelines. It can and should play a significant role in healing our nation’s wounds.

Funders can start by:

  • Working with stakeholders, scholars and community members to identify best practices and develop a mechanism of accountability.
  • Sharing resources to advance the public good and collectively push hate and toxic politics to the margins of society and out of the mainstream.
  • Signing on to the Hate is not Charitable campaign and helping to build momentum for this growing initiative.
  • Convening stakeholders in advocacy, university research centers and philanthropic consultancy to develop long-term industry standards to ensure that hate speech and extremism are not supported by their institutions.

Regarding the role of the Islamophobia Network in philanthropy, charities and foundations should begin screening their grantee lists and simultaneously reaching out to American Muslim advocacy organizations like ours to help them navigate the troubled web of actors responsible for so much of the anti-Muslim toxicity we see publicly. 

Working with American Muslim groups will also help to develop long-term relationships in the interfaith community and strengthen the foundations of local civil society networks.

The promising tradition of philanthropy must take back the public square not simply by preventing its subversion by narrow-interested elites, but by supporting causes that advance the public interest.

Just as philanthropy begins to “divest” from hate, it must reinvest in areas of civil rights, public education and independent journalism, which have suffered the most under the profound rise of corporate and private interests in the last few decades.

Ultimately, philanthropy must be used exclusively to advance, as the very word implies, a love of humanity. Groups like ours are willing and ready to work with them along the way.

Dr. Abbas Barzegar is director of research and advocacy and Zainab Arain is national research and advocacy manager at CAIR. Follow @CAIRNational on Twitter.