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.

Missed the first post in this series? Click on the link to read Part 1.


I visited seven community foundations on this trip, many were doing timely and interesting work such as setting up pooled funds and rapid response funds to provide a vehicle for collaborative grantmaking with private donors and foundations to tackle the recent immigration ban.

But the stand out leader was Fred Blackwell, from San Francisco Foundation (SFF), who grew up in Oakland (a disadvantaged suburb of San Francisco). Since taking on the role of CEO two years ago, Blackwell has transformed what had become a very traditional foundation into a value-based foundation, fighting for racial and cultural equity.

In a frank and honest discussion, Fred shared the challenges of leading a large foundation in a city facing increasing inequality, in terms of access to income, housing and services. The final nail in the coffin, from his perspective, was the closure of the foundation’s social justice fund some five years earlier.

His solution was to make a radical move that saw the dismantling of the long-term programmatic granting areas of education, community development, arts and culture and health. In its place, he launched an integrated grantmaking strategy that focused on advancing racial and economic equity under the three pillars of People, Place, and Power.

People: Expanding access to opportunity through removing systemic barriers

Place: Anchoring communities that reflect people’s culture and identity

Power: Nurturing equity movements to ensure a strong political voice for all

In an era where many large US-based community foundations are facing criticism for becoming agnostic grant making machines, SFF, under the leadership of Blackwell, has done a complete turnaround and placed a social value framework at the front and centre of everything they do.

You can hear Blackwell talk about the motivation behind this move here.


My final choice is Richard Tofel: joint founder and President of ProPublica, a nonprofit organisation supporting and enabling investigative journalism, entirely funded by philanthropy.

In Tofel’s words, “ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force’. We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

ProPublica employs 45 journalists who undertake investigative journalism into issues that would not receive dedicated attention or scrutiny, without the resources or independence provided by philanthropy.

Two Pulitzer Prizes later, ProPublica stands as an example to both Australian philanthropy and the Australian media as to what can be achieved if independent voices are supported as a challenge to consolidated media ownership.

You can watch Tofel talking about measuring the impact of independent journalism and the ProPublica model here.


Australia is not as large, wealthy, racially divided, or as extreme politically as the US. It’s easier for our political leaders to put their head in the sand and ignore some of our most pressing social, environmental, generational and racial issues for a bit longer.

But, if the US is anything to go by, that time of happy ignorance is fast coming to an end and there are lessons we can learn from the social and political challenges the US is currently facing.

Philanthropy has a role to play in helping navigate this new, messy and challenging social landscape.  These four leaders, and many others, gave me both hope that out of dire need inspiration and leadership emerges. To remain relevant and engaged, it is important that we learn from the challenges and lessons faced by our US neighbours:

– Maintaining a healthy, engaged and vibrant democracy, and actively resisting the recent threats to civic participation posed by ill-conceived legislation and by continuing to support an engaged and thoughtful civic society.

– Ensuring the challenge of climate change is front and centre in everything we do, as it is the most pressing issue from a timing perspective that we face today. In tackling this issue, we need to ensure we mobilise and engage the voices that do not currently see themselves reflected in this agenda. We need to ensure the climate activism embraces inequality and race.

– Philanthropy that operates without a value base cannot and will not achieve social change. We need to be cautious that our institutions do not become agnostic grantmaking machines, out of touch with the communities in which they operate and doing little to achieve true social change. This model of philanthropy is outdated, outmoded and does not hold the answer to any pressing social problems—nor will it engage the next generation as it offers neither inspiration nor thoughtful giving.

– Philanthropy cannot operate in isolation and we need partners in the task of holding the public and private sector to account. The value of independent journalism in this equation cannot be underestimated.

All the signs are there that Australian philanthropy is ready to take up these challenges.

And in the meantime, let’s hope our US friends keep fighting so that no one ever has to bring back a piece of the wall.

This article originally appeared in Generosity Magazine.

Image credit: The San Francisco Foundation