Scaling the wall: How US philanthropic leaders are tackling the challenges of Trump Land

Fresh from an insightful visit to the US, Maree Sidey reflects on the touch points where philanthropy is ‘pulling the gloves on and dropping into the middle of the country’s social mess’ and considers the takeaways for philanthropy in Australia.

As I set off on a recent trip to Mexico and the US, the last request from my eight year old was ‘bring back a piece of the wall’.

This request became a defining metaphor for the trip, for even though I explained that the wall hadn’t actually been built, I realised not long into my travels that it may as well have.

The race and hate politics that defined the recent US election have pulled the plug on a tide of emotions simmering throughout Obama’s presidency, and are now pouring forth on both sides of politics with seemingly no way to stem the tide. Who is angry?

Well, just about everybody—angry, apologetic, ashamed, but most of all angry.

But from what I observed, this anger is mobilising philanthropy, a sector often criticised for its lack of political sensitivity and its investment in maintaining the status quo.

So what were the signs that gave me hope? I came across many inspiring themes and leaders on this trip, but the four below were standouts because of the resonance of their messages for Australia.


The most timely concept I encountered, was the term ‘closing space’, referring to sustained attacks on civil society and democracy across the globe, reducing the opportunity for advocacy and protest.

The importance of philanthropy fighting the increasing restrictions on civil society and democracy was the theme of the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (Wings) Forum in Mexico City. Douglas Rutzen, (President of the International Center for Non Profit Law – pictured right) gave a chilling address about the perils of populism and the attacks that have been made on civil society in recent years.

According to Rutzen, eleven US states are currently trying to put in place laws that will restrict peaceful demonstrations. And since 2012, 161 restrictive initiatives on civil society and philanthropy have been considered or enacted around the world. Our Australian parallel is the recent inquiry and subsequent recommendation to restrict the capacity of environmental organisations to advocate or fund grassroots campaigning.

Conference delegates spoke about many other examples of legislation that had been considered or enacted that placed restrictions on both funders and nonprofits in countries as diverse as Kenya and Denmark, in an attempt to silence dissenting voices.

Rutzen challenged philanthropy to work at both a national level by driving country level strategies to fight against restrictions that impact the health of our democracies, and at a local level by supporting and enabling safe places for dialogue (watch his inspiring address here).


Walking into the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) Federal Briefing in Washington DC, I was expecting a traditional environmental conference, but encountered something much more nuanced.  Intersectionality was the key theme as the sector wrestled visibly with the challenge that perhaps the environmental movement had been guilty of failing to engage more marginalised groups.

It was inspiring to see a sector seriously under threat (facing the imminent de-funding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the roll back of renewable projects started under Obama, searching for new allies in its quest to address systemic change).

Instead of retreating to an insular, siloed approach, the discussions were about the importance of addressing the intersection of environmental issues, race and social disadvantage.

My highlight was Heather McGhee, President of Demos (a public policy organisation working for a more democratic and inclusive America), who provided a searing and thought provoking analysis of the failure on both sides of politics to engage the younger generation, and employ a sophisticated racial lens to their activity. It was a dire warning for philanthropy in the US and back home.

Demos is an organisation funded by philanthropy and that platform is helping to create conversations about race and tolerance that are currently lacking from the broader public debate.

This video shows McGhee on live television speaking to a white man who talks openly about his racial prejudice. Their conversation and the public dialogue it created is an illustration of the proud history of philanthropy in creating spaces for real dialogue about divisive issues. What a great opportunity here for Australia, where on the whole, we manage to evade hard conversations about issues of race.

Check out Part 2. This article originally appeared in Generosity Magazine.

Image credit: Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS)