Unpacking Philanthropy Episode 1: Can Philanthropy Help Save Democracy? (Transcript)

Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: February 02, 2022

The following is a transcript of Episode 1 of NCRP’s new video series, Unpacking Philanthropy. 

Check out the video here on LinkedIn. 


Hello, and welcome to the inaugural episode of Unpacking Philanthropy. I’m Aaron Dorfman.

Over the past 15 years while I’ve been lucky enough to lead the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, I’ve written scores of opinion pieces that have been published in various sector and mainstream press outlets. I know that many of you have resonated with some of those pieces and perhaps have been infuriated by others.

Well, now it’s time to see if this old dog can learn some new tricks.

We’re launching this video series, Unpacking Philanthropy, to communicate with NCRP’s members, followers, allies – and adversaries – in new ways.

Philanthropy, Democracy and the Common Good 

As we enter 2022, American democracy is threatened by a dangerous movement of authoritarians and their followers — people who want to return the nation to what they think was a “better past.”

This movement is explicitly violent and white nationalist. And if last year’s insurrection wasn’t enough to prove that to you, a recent University of Chicago study showed 47 million Americans believe the Big Lie that the last election was “stolen,” and a full 21 million Americans believe political violence is justified in order to “return Trump to the presidency.”

Graphic: a recent University of Chicago study showed 47 million Americans believe the Big Lie that the last election was “stolen,” and a full 21 million Americans believe political violence is justified in order to “return Trump to the presidency.”

Graphic: a recent University of Chicago study showed 47 million Americans believe the Big Lie that the last election was “stolen,” and a full 21 million Americans believe political violence is justified in order to “return Trump to the presidency.”

These same individuals largely subscribe to the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy, believing that white people are having their rights superseded by the rights of people of color and that the Democratic Party is “importing immigrants” in order to disenfranchise conservative white voters.

These opinions represent a minority of Americans, but they can no longer be called fringe views in our society – they have infiltrated the mainstream and are echoed in the corridors of Congress, by state and local officials and on our televisions and in our newsfeeds daily.

The Challenge Before Us All

The authoritarians and their followers have taken the battle to our schools, demanding American kids get a white-washed, propagandized version of our complicated national history. They have taken it to our elections process, seeking to strip non-white Americans of the right to vote and undermine confidence in our most basic democratic process. They have taken it to our bodies, criminalizing people who have abortions and healthcare workers that provide them.

They have taken it to our communities, cheering on and using hateful rhetoric that demonizes and dehumanizes immigrants, Black, Brown and Indigenous people to justify violence against them.

I’m tempted to say that if 2022 were a Batman movie, these violent, authoritarian, white nationalist groups and their supporters would be the Joker. If it were a Harry Potter movie, they would be Voldemort. If it were a Black Panther movie, they would be Ulysses Klaue.

But the fact is that for many of us the people in these movements are our relatives, on our boards, and in our neighborhoods. Unlike in the movies, we can’t focus on just one bad guy and call it a day.

This means that if we aren’t part of the solution, we are part of the problem. Our democracy is threatened not just by the insurrectionists and their supporters. The bigger threat may be the complacency and risk-aversion of those who say they want a more inclusive, just future but aren’t willing to stand up to meet these battles head on and do what it takes to protect and rebuild our fragile democracy.

The Good News is All Around Us

The good news is there are organized, growing movements to protect democracy and human rights that have a long track record of fighting and winning. These movements are led by leaders like my friends Analilia Mejia and DaMareo Cooper, who just took over leadership of the Center for Popular Democracy; like NCRP board member Lorella Praeli, who, along with Dorian Warren, leads Community Change; like LaTosha Brown, who leads NCRP member Black Voters Matter; and like so many others – too many to name in this video – who are ready to build and wield the people power we will need to fight for and save our democracy in the years to come.

These movements are ready to absorb and deploy serious philanthropic investments.

Another piece of good news is that the philanthropy sector is clearer now than we’ve ever been about how philanthropy can contribute in meaningful ways to building the kind of society we want and need.

We’ve seen up close and personal during the Covid crisis that when it comes down to it, we are in this together. For each of us to be safe and healthy, we need a  society where all people are safe and healthy. For some of us to thrive, we all have to thrive. We need a society where communal responsibilities are as important as individual rights. Where democracy is for real.

Three Principals to Guide Philanthropy’s Work

For philanthropy to have maximum impact, we need to keep three key principles top of mind:

    1. First, philanthropy is not the answer to bad government or shrinking government. American individuals, foundations and corporations gave a total of 471 billion dollars to charity in 2020. And while that sounds like a lot of money, and indeed it is a lot of money and some people are very generous, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to spending by local, state and federal governments, which, in 2020, was 8.8 trillion dollars. If you do the math, 5 percent of our spending for the common good of society came from charity, and 95 percent came from government.We can’t donate our way out of the pressing problems facing society. A robust and responsive government is essential. Philanthropy can be a complement to government, but never a substitute for it. We must not give an inch on this.We must insist that government play its proper role in society, and that we tax ourselves at a rate that allows us to do that.
    2. Second, while philanthropy can’t and shouldn’t replace government,  philanthropy can and should aim high. A few foundations and many smaller donors invested in the Civil Rights movement, and helped move the nation forward, even as those advances are threatened in our current environment.Foundations played a key role in passing the Affordable Care Act, and now millions of Americans have health insurance and can get the care they need. Foundations and donors supported the movement for LGBTQ equality, and marriage equality arrived sooner than anyone expected.The lesson in these successes is that building power is essential if we want to see change. Donors and foundations help communities build power by funding advocacy, community organizing and movement building, and by providing multi-year general operating support. This kind of funding is a vital, high-leverage tool for donors and foundations that can yield tremendous dividends for society.All organizations in the social change ecosystem must be well-resourced, including the professionalized advocacy organizations and the scrappier movement groups often led by people of color on the frontlines. When we fund in these ways, it works!
    3. Finally – and this is vitally important – the people most affected by injustice must play a central role in their own liberation. That means donors and foundations must learn to share power.Program officers, executives and trustees of foundations, and major donors must co-create strategy with grassroots leaders and follow the tenets of trust-based philanthropy. Our sector must also share power at the governance level by diversifying foundation boards and by hiring CEOs who have lived experience with the problems we’re trying to solve.If your foundation’s board and executive leadership is as white and male as the Republican delegation to the US Senate, it’s time to make a change.It’s true, as many critics have been saying recently, that mega-donors have too much power and influence over our democracy, and that philanthropy helps them wield that power. Part of the solution is public policy that prevents such incredible concentrations of wealth in the first place, and that ensures broad prosperity for middle- and working-class Americans.Another part of the solution is for more donors to recognize the problem and to give in ways that cede their power, like MacKenzie Scott, Susan Sandler and other (mostly women) donors have been doing.

My friends, there is so very much at stake in 2022. Our democracy hangs in the balance. Unpacking Philanthropy will explore these issues and more with a new video message every few weeks. Subscribe, and you’ll be sure not to miss an episode.

Philanthropy can help build a society of, for and by the people – a democracy where all of us thrive. It’s up to every one of us to make it happen – or face the consequences if it doesn’t. Be bold, friends, and use your power now, when it is needed more than ever.