Philanthropy in the Trump era: Helping the Hurting Class get into the Middle Class
With the long torment of the 2016 national election finally concluded, the equally tormenting analyses are beginning as to which of Donald Trump’s riffs at campaign rallies were meant just to whip up the crowd and which he intends to actually enact.
One big message that came through in rally after rally was that President-elect Trump wants to help the substantial part of our population that’s been left behind in the 21st century: American working class wage earners who believe they have been forgotten and don’t see a way to get ahead.
For many Trump followers, the “Make America Great Again” campaign motto translated to “Make My Life Prospects Great Again.”
As someone in community philanthropy, working every day to improve the quality of life for those who are struggling economically, it’s difficult to believe him. Mr. Trump’s words of empathy for the working class are not what he has seemed to feel or demonstrate during his long, self-indulgent life, as evidenced by his mistreatment of wage-earning workers in his various businesses.
But if Mr. Trump does want to turn his concern from campaign caricature into something real that actually helps the poor and the dispossessed — the large percentage of our population left out of American prosperity for decades — then he must dedicate his presidency to this goal. No matter what Middle-Class growth policies he tries to sell Americans, they will never succeed if he does not first recant the dangerous, demeaning treatment of immigrants and people of color, and the misogynist behavior exhibited during the campaign. Even if that happens, it will take actions, not words, for much of America to trust his motives.
To begin building trust, Mr. Trump will need significant help from a wide array of capable, knowledgeable advisers, Cabinet members and others with the collective ability to give meaning to the “Make-Your-Life-Great-Again” boast. Knowledge, facts and strategy are essential to making it happen, despite his apparent aversion to them.
Coming into his presidency, Mr. Trump has an enormous hurdle to get over: Nearly 53 percent of those who voted in the election didn’t choose him. If he wants to be successful, he will have to gain credibility by working with credible partners. He will need to reach out to experts — often villainized as “elites” at his rallies — who are actually experienced, accomplished people in academia, business and philanthropy who have been hard at work in this vineyard and have public credibility.
Unfortunately, the charitable sector did not escape mud splatter from the campaign — the Trump Foundation is under investigation for self-dealing to the benefit of its namesake, and the Clinton Foundation has been the target of choice for pay-to-play conspiracy theories. But, coming out of this election, philanthropy is certainly better positioned than other sectors to work with government in growing a strong middle class.
A national survey of voters commissioned earlier this year by Independent Sector, which represents the country’s charitable nonprofits, found that an overwhelming majority — 78 percent, representing every political persuasion — love philanthropic organizations. They want the federal government to engage more with our organizations to more effectively address economic and social challenges.
This reservoir of goodwill is great news for the philanthropic communities that operate in nearly every region of the country — foundations, nonprofits and individuals working every day for social and economic change. But we in the field are in danger of losing that goodwill if we don’t get closer to the ground. We must meet people where they are struggling, and we must examine how we have been engaging the poor and working class in developing our programs.
The Pittsburgh Foundation’s new organizing principle, 100 Percent Pittsburgh, was born out of shock from our own research that a third of Pittsburgh-area residents cannot access our revitalized regional economy. We have spent a lot of time figuring out who they are and how best to engage them in defining solutions that stand the best chance of enabling the poor and struggling to participate.
Community foundations such as ours and the San Francisco Foundation, as well as place-based foundations such as The Heinz Endowments, through its Just Pittsburgh initiative, were founded to seed aspiration as much as to provide funding. In our case, we are committing 60 percent of our grantmaking to creating opportunities that will pull residents out of poverty and grow the middle class.
The question I keep asking myself as we go deeper into this work is: Are we passing over some groups in favor of others because we don’t know their lived experience and find it difficult to communicate with them?
We recently surveyed nearly 1,000 Pittsburgh-area residents representing a broad swath of economic and social strata about the messaging we plan to use in our new work. Our findings mirror what staff of the Ford Foundation and Hattaway Communications found in a similar survey while developing the American Aspirations program, an ambitious research effort to uncover narratives that speak to the hopes that animate most Americans today.
Responses tell us that a broad cross-section of Pittsburgh-area residents share aspirations that transcend political and ideological divides. Leaders in philanthropy have the resources and the networks to connect social causes with Americans’ values and expectations.
To be the aspirational leader-in-chief and deliver on his promise to lift the poor and working class into the middle-class ranks, President-elect Trump must demonstrate that he shares the values that are at the core of American philanthropy. If there is common values ground, then we in philanthropy are obligated to work with his administration. If not, then we must be prepared for a rougher road in the course of our work. We will know the direction soon.
Maxwell King is president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.