In college, I had a journalism professor who taught us never to start a piece with a question. But I can’t help myself.

I want to know: Who is threatening “philanthropic freedom?”

And I want to know what pluralism really looks like — and who defines it?

OK, that was two questions, but they have been on my mind since a strange bedfellows — more on that in a moment — op-ed came out in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (also re-published on the Ford Foundation website) a few weeks back. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker emailed it out under the subject line, “A Plea for Philanthropic Freedom.”

Let me pause here to say that I hesitate to take issue with Walker, who is one of the foundation leaders I most admire for his laser-like focus on inequality and his strong moral voice. I deeply respect him and what he has done at the Ford Foundation.

More personally, he wrote a beautiful foreword to my 2019 book, “Giving Done Right,” for which I will forever be grateful, and has been unwaveringly kind to me. On top of that, the Ford Foundation is one of CEP’s steadiest and longest-standing clients and grant funders — providing, between general support and project funding, some half million dollars a year to CEP. Its executive vice president, Hilary Pennington, has been a CEP Board member for nine years, just completing her term, and has also been a great mentor and friend.

‘Pledging Allegiance?’

But, since the op-ed is a call for “philanthropic pluralism,” I am going to respectfully offer a different take. The truth is, I tried to make sense of this op ed, and I could not.

The authors write that “foundations and philanthropists are often expected to pledge allegiance to one or another narrow set of prescribed views.”

What, I thought, could this be about?

The authors don’t say, so we are left to guess. Could it be a concern about the effort by the Council on Foundations (COF) and its CEO Kathleen Enright to get foundations to sign an actual pledge — to adopt trust-based funding practices in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020? That couldn’t be — because Enright co-authored the op-ed and the Ford Foundation was one of the prime movers behind that pledge.

So perhaps the concern is with those who encourage foundations to focus on racial equity? Are those the “prescribed views” that are somehow threatening to foundation leaders? This seems very unlikely to be Walker’s view; he has been a steadfast advocate for racial equity and wrote a book advocating for donors to shift their mindset “From Generosity to Justice.” Nor do I think that likely to be Enright’s or several of the other co-authors’ concern.

However, this does seem to be the perspective of another co-author of the piece, the CEO of the Philanthropy Roundtable, Elise Westhoff, who in 2021 went after Walker and others for focusing on racial equity, writing: “Perhaps they care less about helping white Americans, who are ‘oppressors’ according to critical race theory.” On stage with Senator Ted Cruz and her board member and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy at a Heritage Foundation event that same year, she declared, “if woke culture is a cancer, philanthropy is the source of the infection.” For his part, Ramaswamy, at the same event, declared, “let’s get rid of DEI.”

Unfortunately, the authors don’t say what the unspecified threat to “philanthropic pluralism” is that they’re countering.

Read the full article about philanthropic freedom by Phil Buchanan at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.