Duck and Cover: From Top Foundations, a Striking Silence on Immigrant Ban

Dick Cheney has spoken out. So has Senator John McCain and a slew of other Republicans. Most Democratic leaders have condemned President Trump's cruel and clumsy executive order banning immigrants from many Muslim countries and all refugees. Tech sector leaders like Reed Hastings, Tim Cook, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have also expressed their concerns. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, himself a Soviet-era refusenik immigrant, even showed at up the San Francisco airport to register his dissent. Newspapers editorials across the nation have condemned the ban, along with foreign leaders. 

The presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and others have issued statements voicing either concerns about the travel ban, or outright opposition. The 62 institutions comprising the Association of American Universities (AAU) released a statement Saturday urging government officials to end the travel ban “as quickly as possible.”

Naturally, many major foundation presidents have also stepped up to say that Trump's executive order is not OK. Or at least to say something. Right? 

Wrong. In fact, few top foundation leaders, or their institutions, have said anything about the ban at all. Yesterday, the New York Times devoted a remarkable seven pages of coverage to the uproar around Trump's executive order. But looking at the websites and social media feeds of most major foundations, you'd never know that anything unusual was happening in the broader world—much less anything deeply antithetical to the optimistic humanist vision that organized philanthropy has put forth for the past century. 

Beyond the social media postings of a few progressive foundations like Ford and OSF, the collective silence of the big foundations has been striking. Over the past few days, as protestors surged into airports across the nation, the Twitter feeds of such places as Gates, MacArthur, Hewlett, Knight, and Rockefeller have chirped away—seemingly on autopilot—about routine foundation doings. Even the Carnegie Corporation, which was endowed by an immigrant and works on immigration, hasn't publicly weighed in on Trump's executive order.  

Bill Gates may have built his fortune, in part, with help from legions of tech-savvy immigrants. And his foundation may have given millions in recent years to help refugees stranded in squalid camps. But he's no Sergey Brin—or Pierre Omidyar, whose Twitter feed has been on fire with indignation. Bill and Melinda Gates have both been silent on Trump's executive order, even as Microsoft has joined Amazon in a lawsuit challenging the ban. 

At some level, of course, none of this is surprising. Foundations generally aren't in the business of weighing in on controversial events sparked by presidential action. They engage in plenty of policy activism, for sure, but take pains to avoid appearing "political" or otherwise drawing attention to themselves in ways that may spark backlash. 

You can see the logic of that stance given the delicate role of philanthropy in U.S. society. Private funders have considerable influence in the public policy arena, and most are driven by normative values, but they don't really want anyone to know that. They'd rather that most Americans think of foundations—when they think of them at all—as benign do-gooders working objectively to make the world a better place.

Foundations also tend to stay in the background because of the ethos that it's not about them; it's about the work of their grantees. Foundations support others to fight in the public square. They don't do much of this themselves, nor are they staffed to play that kind of role. 

And with armies of Trump trolls now everywhere on the internet, you can certainly see the incentives for funders to stay silent right now. 

If these were normal times, and we were dealing with the usual partisan fights that consume politics, you could understand why foundations would stick with a strategy of non-engagement. 

But with each passing day of the new Trump presidency, it's becoming clearer that these aren't normal times and that, instead, we're facing a national crisis that transcends politics and partisanship. 

This is a clutch moment for all civil society institutions. It's precisely times like these that remind us why civil society is so important to begin with: because this sector can serve as a counterweight to the state, ensuring better outcomes for society as a whole. 

If you drew a pyramid sketch of civil society, foundations would be at or near the very top. These are among the most influential and powerful of all civil society institutions. And in emergency moments for the sector, we need to hear from the leaders of these institutions. Their voices carry weight in elite provinces and their willingness to stand publicly means something to their many grantees, who are out on the front lines every day. 

If foundation leaders are silent and cowed this week, what about next time, when an even bigger attack on American values occurs? Just how committed are they, really, to defending their ideals and supporting a civil society sector that engages in dissent? 

Before Trump took office, the mantra among many was "wait and see." Well, now we have. And now we know that everything has changed. Whether foundations like it or not, they're now in the fight of their lives to defend the values of humanism and scientific progress that organized philanthropy has championed for over a century.

Silence is no longer an option. When everything changes, foundations needs to change, too. Yesterday, the New York Times editorial board said, "History has its eyes on Trump officials and members of Congress, who know better, but are staying silent."

Foundation leaders, too, will be judged by history. 

(See my piece from yesterday that spells out in more detail why foundations need to mobilize against Trumpism.)

RelatedMoment of Truth: Will Foundations Come Together to Fight Trump?