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Ellen Alberding Speaks at Opening Plenary of Independent Sector 2016 Conference


This article was originally published through The Chronicle of Philanthropy on November 17, 2016.


Nonprofit leaders this week called on one another to ratchet up public-policy and advocacy work, especially at the state level, under the forthcoming Trump administration, even as they cautioned against being "whipsawed" by the outcome of the presidential election.

"We have to be clear about what we stand for and focus on policy and action, not personality," Brian Gallagher, chief executive of United Way Worldwide, said Wednesday at the Independent Sector conference, one of the largest and most important for nonprofits.

No one defended the president-elect during the two panel discussions that kicked off the annual meeting in Washington, its first since Independent Sector Chief Executive Dan Cardinali took the reins from longtime leader Diana Aviv. Remarks by foundation and nonprofit leaders, as well as political strategists from both sides of the aisle, made evident their surprise and dismay at Mr. Trump’s victory, although Mr. Cardinali said later in the conference that Independent Sector "represented itself with equanimity to both campaigns."

In Washington, Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, said that the immediate challenge facing philanthropy with the forthcoming change in the White House is "to balance an intense, legitimate, emotional response with a pragmatic focus on trying to get some things done and also stopping bad things from happening."

How best to do that — and what the election results mean for nonprofits and foundations — was up for debate, however.

"We’ve stepped into an unknown," said Michael Steel, Republican political strategist.

A Rejection of Institutions

The anti-establishment sentiment that propelled Mr. Trump to the presidency has serious implications for foundations and nonprofits, Mr. Gallagher said.

Noting voters’ apparent rejection of institutions and young people’s eagerness to organize outside of traditional organizations, he called for grant makers and nonprofits to define themselves less as institutions and more as facilitators that "work together to get people engaged in things that matter to them." Organizations should care less about the financial assets they control and more about how effectively they strengthen civil society, he said.

In contrast, Ms. Alberding cautioned against "overreacting to current circumstances," comparing philanthropic institutions to Thanksgiving Day parade balloons that require a firm hold on the reins to remain "well anchored."

"I think it’s very important for us in the foundation world to keep our eye on the long run and maintain our core values and not be whipsawed by current events," she said.

Both panelists agreed, however, that the sector needs to set aside its squeamishness about intervening in government to prioritize policy work, especially on the state level. They cited an Independent Sector poll that revealed widespread public support for the charitable world playing a more active role in shaping public policy.

"Foundations could and should be more aggressive on the advocacy front on the issues they really care about," Ms. Alberding said to applause.

The same holds for other nonprofits, Mr. Gallagher said: "If you don’t have a policy strategy, then you don’t have a mission and purpose."

Nonprofit leaders also called on one another to reject the racist and sexist rhetoric that permeated the 2016 presidential campaign.

"Civil society is our business," Mr. Gallagher said. "We can take a pass on the economy — that’s not quite our job. We can take a pass on politics — that’s not quite our job. But we can’t take a pass on culture."

When asked how nonprofit leaders might be able to "listen to racists without getting angry at them," Mr. Steel replied, "I don’t think we should talk to racists without getting angry at them," to loud audience applause.

An Exercise in Listening

The conference is an opportunity for nonprofit leaders to gather to make sense of what’s happening in the wake of the election, said Mr. Cardinali in an interview.

It’s an opportunity that attendees seem to want. "As a community, how do we use this particular moment in time? How do we organize?" asked Jane Dimyan Ehrenfeld, executive director of Center for Inspired Teaching, during an interview before the plenary. "Independent Sector has the opportunity and perhaps the responsibility to think about how to communicate those key understandings."

David Smith, managing director of the Presidio Institute, said in an interview that he hopes the nonprofit world can create a "brave space" where people who are marginalized can come together to better understand each other.

It may be a little too soon to try to draw firm conclusions about what the election means for philanthropy, he said, but the important thing now is to listen. That’s "a lot of the work that’s being done by organizations in the rural communities and outside the Beltway."