Strengthening the Foundations of Free Society
In listing societal institutions that are a force against big government, strong marriages, strong families, and strong churches immediately come to mind. But is philanthropy — the generous, voluntary donations to worthy causes — also an indispensible support of freedom?
The Philanthropy Roundtable — a nonprofit based out of Washington, D.C., that seeks to foster excellence in the world of grant making — is proof that the answer is “Yes.”
“Philanthropy is a huge bulwark of a free and independent civil society,” said Adam Meyerson, who has served as the Philanthropy Roundtable’s president since 2001. “It helps to prevent individuals from becoming too reliant on government. It’s particularly important at this time in history, when the future of independent civil society is at stake.”
Bringing donors together to foster liberty and create private opportunities to meet needs in the community — those were the primary reasons that lead to the creation of the Philanthropy Roundtable in the 1970s. In 1991, the organization became an independent organization with its own board of directors.
The Roundtable has four key values: promoting excellence in philanthropy; advocating philanthropic freedom; respecting donor intent; and helping philanthropists to bolster liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility in America and abroad.
These values align with the principles of the John William Pope Foundation. In accordance with that agreement, the Pope Foundation has given $290,000 to Philanthropy Roundtable since 1997.
The Roundtable accomplishes its mission through a variety of means. The group has over 630 member organizations, including foundations, generous families, individual philanthropists, and corporate-giving programs.
The organization conducts several regional meetings a year, covering areas such as K-12, veterans philosophy, and strategies to boost economic mobility among the poor; hosts an annual meeting, which attracts over 400 donors; and distributes a quarterly publication, Philanthropy magazine, to over 10,000 readers.
The Philanthropy Roundtable occupies a unique niche in the marketplace: Numerous organizations in the United States provide opportunities for donors to meet and exchange ideas, but the Philanthropy Roundtable performs that function with a specific freedom-centric viewpoint.
“We work to strengthen the free society, and the Roundtable is here to serve donors who seek to do this through their philanthropic giving,” said Jo Kwong, Director of Economic Opportunity Programs at the Roundtable. “There are plenty of good intentions in philanthropy, which are admirable, but the people who are attracted to the Roundtable also are pursuing effectiveness and impact.”
Preserving donor intent
One of Philanthropy Roundtable’s chief reasons for existing is to teach foundations how to avoid the pitfalls of neglecting donor intent.
A concept that has fallen by the wayside in contemporary philanthropy, the principle of donor intent ensures that a foundation’s resources are allocated in a manner that the original wealth creators would have supported. Too frequently, donor intent is disregarded as succeeding trustees and staff, whether intentionally or not, devote resources to causes that the original founders would have found abhorrent.
“Donors are more likely to be generous with their money if they think their principles will be followed in future generations,” Meyerson said.
To underscore his point, Meyerson contributed a column to The Wall Street Journal in March 2012 pointing to the Ford Foundation as “one of the best examples of donor neglect.”
“The most famous horror story came when Henry Ford II publicly resigned from the Ford Foundation board of directors because of the anti-free-market tilt of the foundation,” Meyerson said.
He points to the John M. Olin Foundation as an example of donor intent done right. The foundation incorporated a sunset clause that ended its grant-making in 2005.
“Many foundations increasingly are looking at ‘giving while living’ by establishing a sunset provision after one generation — or, at most, two generations — after the death of their founders,” Meyerson said.
The Roundtable actively defends philanthropic freedom in the halls of government through the Alliance for Charitable Reform project. One of ACR’s primary goals is to preserve the century-old tax deduction for charitable contributions.
“The charitable deduction has helped to strengthen private institutions throughout America — whether they be colleges and universities, churches and synagogues, hospitals, or think tanks,” Meyerson said. “All these groups will be hurt by taking away the charitable deduction. The strength of communities will suffer.”
The Roundtable also supports the right of philanthropies to spend their charitable dollars as they choose. In addition, the group helps foundations use their dollars more effectively in lean economic times.
Part of the way the Roundtable meet these goals is through an education effort that culminates in an annual meeting, a three-day event that features a wide range of speakers and concurrent sessions.
The annual meeting is a solicitation-free environment where donors can meet and discuss ideas, Kwong said.
“If you go to other philanthropic gatherings, many times the emphasis is on how we can expand government programs,” she said. “The Roundtable is more often than not looking at civil society from the standpoint of what we can do as individuals to come up with creative solutions that don’t rely on the power of government. That is a difference that we hope comes through.”
Part of the Roundtable’s mission is to showcase success. At a recent conference, they featured a talk by Steve Swayne of StepUp Ministry, a nonprofit headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, that teaches life and jobs skills to the poor.
“Steve showed how grassroots organizations can help train people for the workplace,” Meyerson said. “That’s one of our hallmarks at the Roundtable: we help donors find private-sector solutions to contemporary problems.”
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