How Giving Promotes Economic Freedom for All Americans

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Giving to good causes is key to maintaining America’s free market system, the head of Philanthropy Roundtable says. 

It’s not the job of government to meet the needs of all Americans, Elise Westhoff, the organization’s president and CEO, says. So “if we have a strong philanthropic sector,” Westhoff says, “I think that allows us to really make the argument for why the free market works, and also be able to help people in need.”

Philanthropy Roundtable helps Americans to determine how to give back to their communities and country in a way that will further freedom and promote their values. 

In an age when many on the political left are using philanthropy to promote a woke agenda, it is critical for conservatives to invest in organizations and causes that will leave a lasting legacy, Westhoff says. 

Westhoff joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain why philanthropy is so important to America’s future. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • The New York State Assembly is close to concluding its impeachment investigation into Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is accused of sexually harassing multiple women.
  • President Joe Biden announces deferment of departures for Hong Kong citizens in America amid China’s suppression of liberties in Hong Kong. 
  • Richard Trumka, an influential labor leader as president of the AFL-CIO, dies at 72.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Elise Westhoff, the president and CEO of Philanthropy Roundtable. Elise, thank you so much for being here.

Elise Westhoff: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Allen: For those who are not familiar with the Philanthropy Roundtable, could you just explain a little bit about what you all do?

Westhoff: Absolutely. We are a network of philanthropists who want to advance liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility. We have donors of all sizes, but they’re all serious philanthropists, and are really thinking about their philanthropy in a strategic way.

What we’re really hoping to do is build a movement around strengthening our free society. So that’s what motivates us every day, and a big part of that is making sure that we have the right framework to do that.

We also are engaged on policy issues related to the philanthropic sector to make sure that conservative donors, and donors of all kinds, can give to the causes that they believe in, as they choose, and on their own timeline. So not too much government intrusion into the philanthropic sector. It’s important for them to be separate.

Allen: Yeah. For you personally, why is this a passion?

Westhoff: Well, I shared a little bit of my personal story just recently on the main stage over here, but I grew up in Indiana and I faced some challenges growing up. Being equipped with the values that my family gave me—personal responsibility, hard work, integrity, character, my faith—all of those things really helped us overcome some of those challenges.

So I’ve always been motivated by the idea of helping others and getting a chance to do that. And that’s the opportunity that I see in philanthropy. And I think, honestly, philanthropy does it better than the government does, and that’s why I think there’s a huge opportunity to help uplift people who need and empower people who are coming from challenging circumstances, and helping them thrive, and do it in a way that is much better than what the government would do.

Allen: So then what is that relationship between philanthropy and economic freedom?

Westhoff: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a huge relationship, yeah. Because there are so many people out there who believe that the government should be doing everything for everyone and changing the system, the free market system that we have, and I think, actually, philanthropy is the key to keeping that system, but also making sure that we’re addressing the part about that desire to help people in need.

Philanthropy has the opportunity to do that, and again, it does it better than the government can do it. And I think that’s been proven over and over and over again.

So if we have a strong philanthropic sector, I think that allows us to really make the argument for why the free market works, and also be able to help people in need, which is a message that I think conservatives really need to focus on right now because we really need to cast a positive vision of the society that we want to live in.

Allen: And I think we hear that argument sometimes from those on the left that say, “Well, we really can’t trust individuals, that they’re going to give, that they’re going to step up to the challenges and help solve the poverty crisis, and all of these different things, so we should just let the government do it.”

Westhoff: Right.

Allen: What is your response to that argument?

Westhoff: Well, I mean, America is the most charitable country in the world and it always has been. We are built on associations, and we always have been.

And rather than declining, actually, especially during COVID, we were all a little nervous when the economy started to look like it was having problems, that people wouldn’t step up, but it was anything but the truth. The estimates for last year are that giving is up about 10% over the year prior. People really stepped up to the plate.

I think the spirit of America is entrepreneurial and it’s generous, and that’s what allows philanthropy to be so effective, is that people can really look to their specific community and come up with solutions quickly, in a way that’s nimble.

Government doesn’t do that very well, and I think we saw that. That is probably one thing that both sides of the aisle can agree on, is that government isn’t really meant to be nimble and quick.

It’s also a very top-down model in government, whereas philanthropy is all about people, and communities, and their ability to look at their own problems in a very specific and unique way, and address them head-on, and it’s going to be different for every community. So you really can’t have a one-size-fits-all solution.

Allen: So working in this space, what are maybe some examples of places where you’ve seen philanthropy really works, where maybe the government had even tried to step in and it didn’t work, but then you had private citizens step up to the challenge and it was successful?

Westhoff: Yeah. I think education is one space that we’re all thinking about a lot, and it’s a huge opportunity for us right now. You look at the failing system that we have and … I personally am very invested in this. I have been supporting a school in Philadelphia for foster kids that’s specific to that unique population there, and I’ve been doing it for years and I mentor one of their students, and they just don’t do well in a traditional environment because their needs are really different.

And that’s one specific example, but every kid is unique, and every family and parent is unique. I think part of the reason why the public education system isn’t doing well is because it tries to treat everyone as if they’re the same, and we’re not.

So this is a place where philanthropy has really stepped up in a lot of ways, both to create the right policy environment where we can get school choice, but also getting kids scholarships to go to the schools that are more effective.

And the pandemic has just been like a watershed for, I think, that movement, and I think we have a lot of momentum, and it’s actually reaching people on the left too, which is exciting. So I hope that we can seize the opportunity in the next year to get school choice for every family, because they deserve it.

Allen: It’s a really, really critical subject, and something that we talk a lot about at The Heritage Foundation. School choice is so important. It really is, “Do we want a generation that’s thriving? Are we going to give our kids what they need?” is really what it comes down to. It’s so, so critical.

Now, we can’t have this conversation without talking about also what’s going on on the left regarding philanthropy. We see groups like the Ford Foundation, they’re giving millions of dollars to progressive causes. How does that affect society?

Westhoff: Yeah, I think that we’re seeing so much, and I’m sure you’ve talked a lot about critical race theory, and identity politics, and woke culture in general. A lot of people at Heritage have been speaking about this, and writing about this, and doing research on this, but it’s very true: Philanthropy is the source of the woke infection.

For decades these big foundations have been pouring tons of money into academic research that set up different identity groups and created affinity around these identity groups, and created the idea of that. And really, it’s partly for voting purposes to create that group, and the feeling … that we have to come together and fight against Republican politics or whatnot. So it is extremely influential on society.

They’ve created academic research and then they have infused culture with these ideas using their money. So it’s a really big problem, and we don’t really have the same infrastructure on the right that I think that we need in philanthropy in order to promote our ideas effectively and get them into culture the way that the left has.

Allen: And of course, the irony of it all is that these large companies, they’re using free market principles to make all their money, and then they’re shuffling those into these groups that promote socialist ideas and these things that are really oppressive.

Your colleague Richard Graber, who is chair of the Philanthropy Roundtable, he recently wrote a piece that we republished in The Daily Signal titled “Woke Foundations Use Dollars Acquired Through Capitalism to Undermine Free Market Principles.” How are we seeing this happen?

Westhoff: Part of it is that some of these old foundations that have been around for decades and decades, they did not have a really clear mandate on how that money was supposed to be spent. So they didn’t have a clear donor intent. And then over time, new people take over and they take the lack of mission, the lack of donor intent—even though we know Henry Ford was a capitalist and a free market guy, he didn’t leave instructions. And so … you have big staff that take over, and they tend to be on the progressive side.

Philanthropy itself is an extremely progressive sector, so the people who go and staff those places are able to use that as a platform to forward their progressive ideas. So if you don’t have protection in terms of how you want your legacy to be carried out, it will get hijacked. So it’s an important lesson for future philanthropists.

Also, a lot of our philanthropists on the conservative side choose to sunset their foundations, because they don’t want to see that mission creep over time and they don’t want to see their legacy destroyed and undermined by people who don’t share it.

So there’s been a revolution of that that the Philanthropy Roundtable has helped to forward, which is either really strongly protect your donor intent, one, with clear instructions and in your bylaws, and in every way you can possibly think of, or consider not having the foundation go on in perpetuity. Because what happens is people eventually will not care what the original founder thought and believed in, and they’ll take it in their own direction, and that’s exactly what’s happened.

Allen: How can we really go about encouraging Americans at all levels? Whether you are a … multimillionaire or you’re just in a medium-income range, how can we encourage people to begin to think like philanthropists, to begin to think generously, and think about legacy: “What is the impact that I want to leave behind for my children and my grandchildren?”

Westhoff: Yeah. I think that philanthropy is a big and lofty term, but I like to think we can all be donors, and we can all be part of the charitable sector in one way or another.

Obviously, I’m not giving away millions of dollars every year, but I’m intentional about the money that I do give away, and I think very deeply about whether the organizations I’m supporting advanced my personal values. So I think a lot about that.

I think it’s important, part of the beauty of our sector [is] we have churches, we have synagogues, we have people who are giving to things that create that sense of community. So being part of a community like that and volunteering is also … in your own way, part of being a philanthropist—being generous with your time and your talents.

I highly recommend mentoring. It’s something that I do, and it’s one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. You learn as much as you teach, and it’s really a way to connect and think deeply about what you want your legacy to be and helping others being a part of that.

So I think people, no matter how much money you have, you can be part of it in one way or another. And some of it is your time and talents, and finding something you feel passionately about, and sharing those things and your gifts with others.

Allen: Yeah. And how do you go about doing that, actually finding those things? Because we often, if we have a little bit of money and we think, “I want to give this away, I want to bless someone, I want a partner,” it can be challenging. There’s so many great causes, so many great initiatives.

Westhoff: Right.

Allen: What are maybe some tips you recommend for finding, “OK, this is where I want to invest. This is where I want to plant those financial seeds”?

Westhoff: Well, I’ll make a plug for the Philanthropy Roundtable for your conservative-minded people. I think we really highlight a lot of excellent organizations around the country that are really making a difference and that align with our values and believe in hard work, and personal responsibility, and opportunity for everyone, and liberty. And so we’re highlighting great organizations. We have public webinars, we have places you can learn about those things.

I would also recommend thinking about your personal values, and looking to your own community first. … People, I think, often feel like they have to do something really big on the national scale, and when you’re just starting out, look around you. See what impresses you. …

If you’re a religious person, look to the churches and synagogues and places that are really doing great religious space work. If you’re not, there’s a lot of local initiatives that are doing things like fighting poverty that you can get involved in. Or if you’re more on the policy side, most states have state think tanks that you can get involved with and learn about what they’re doing to fight the battles that create the right environment for people to thrive.

So getting involved at the local level first, I think, is a great way to dip your toe in.

Allen: Yeah.

Westhoff: And the Philanthropy Roundtable, again, likes to highlight great organizations like Heritage and others, and also local ones that are doing excellent work.

Allen: So if individuals listening want to draw on the resources that you-all offer, how would they go about doing that?

Westhoff: You can go to our website, philanthropyroundtable.org. Again, we have a lot of public webinars, we have public materials, op-eds. We have guidebooks that you can download, things like that. And then, also, we can provide more individual services as well for people who are very serious and want to start looking into how to be very strategic with their philanthropy.

So if you want to reach out to us on our website, we’d love to bring you into our community. It’s a great one, and a place of learning, and a place of sharing, and also thinking strategically as a movement together, which is something that I think that we really need more of on our side that we’ve been lacking.

Allen: Absolutely. Yeah.

Westhoff: Yeah.

Allen: Elise, thank you so much. We really appreciate the work that you’re doing and your time today.

Westhoff: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

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