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When is a Disaster a Disaster? Philanthropic Priorities in Our New Reality

March 20th, 2017

Richard Marker

It is always gratifying when the press is interested in my opinions, and this has been one of those times. The question from several well-known, and some not so well known, periodicals has been whether the huge amount of financial support for organizations such as Planned Parenthood and ACLU and other organizations under attack by the current administration represents a long-term change.

It is a reasonable question. There has indeed been a surge in support for these organizations as challenges to civil liberties for all, including the press, the courts, reproductive rights, religious minorities, and immigrants have come fast, furious, and frontally. These unprecedented attacks have led to unprecedented support to well respected organizations committed to support for and sustaining the values under attack. The questions the journalists have asked me and others is if this represents a major and sustainable change in giving behaviors and priorities.

I suspect that you will find my response a bit of a hedge. If one looks at historic trends, one sees that there are predictable times when giving to particular causes surges: around floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terror events, and other major news makers where human suffering is visible and manifest. In most cases, that surge subsides quickly and people return to their prior giving practices . The impulse is compassionate, humane, and heartfelt but, as the news cycle moves on to a new headline, the giving does as well. [This is not to say that the needs don’t continue; many in the philanthropy world have learned to “keep our powder dry” for 1 or 2 years to see what needs continue after the public compassion phase ebbs.]

Is the current fierce and angry reaction to the shocking and negatively disruptive public policies of this administration equivalent to a natural disaster response? Or will people tire of being angry and outraged and choose to hibernate until this chilling winter of discontent is over in 2 or 4 years? Will those who responded immediately with substantial new financial support trust that others are able to advocate and fund the organizations that support civil society – without them?

Will these challenges to values we hold dear continue to mobilize and motivate? Will those new funders feel these attacks so personally or empathetically that they will continue to support civil liberties, women’s rights, environmental sustainability, immigrant rights, economic equity, racial justice, electoral fairness?

Or, to muddy the water even more, with the recent release of the preliminary budget by the administration, will funders now argue that even long time funding must be viewed as disaster funding? If core safety net, basic science, arts and humanities, early childhood, social security and Medicare are all being eliminated or radically reduced, some may argue that the most responsible choice is to make sure that educational and cultural and disaster management and early childhood and food for the elderly are sustained, through direct funding, even at the cost of vital advocacy.

One wonders: Have we entered a late 60’s style activism that ultimately will save our nation- mobilizing masses for a long enough time to create palpable change but not necessarily smoothly? Many may have political and philanthropic preferences, but, to return to the question the journalists have asked, in truth, no one knows for sure.

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