Recent Republican presidents have promoted philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as alternatives to government in meeting human needs. These presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, established high-profile offices to give visibility to private approaches to doing good. President Reagan created a President’s Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives to catalyze private efforts to compensate for the massive government cuts he proposed. President George H. W. Bush helped establish an independent Points of Light Foundation to promote volunteerism as a way to tackle social problems. President George W. Bush formed a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and similar offices in many executive departments to advance religiously-oriented approaches to doing good and to expand government funding of faith-based institutions.
To be sure, many of these prior initiatives were motivated by erroneous assumptions that have become core components of Republican orthodoxy – for example, that U.S. nonprofits rely chiefly on charitable giving for their support, that government support for nonprofits is inappropriate at best and downright harmful at worst, and that charitable support can easily replace any service gaps that government budget cuts might produce.
It might be hoped that President-elect Trump will complement his other departures from recent Republican orthodoxy with a more reasoned approach to government-nonprofit collaboration. “Make the government-nonprofit partnership work again” may not have the ring of Trump’s “Make America great again,” but it is every bit as important. Nonprofit organizations employ more people than all but two of this country’s major industries – manufacturing and retail sales. They deliver much of the health care, most of the human services, and substantial portions of the educational services available in the country – much of this in cooperation with state and federal governments.
But hopes for a renaissance of government-nonprofit relations in a Trump presidency find little support in the generally unformed programmatic proposals unveiled in the candidate’s campaign, or in his past history of charitable giving or nonprofit-sector awareness. The most profound impact of the Trump ascendance on the country’s nonprofit sector might therefore be to stimulate a reinvigoration of the sector’s civic engagement and advocacy role to fend off or limit the damage that some believe may be in store for nonprofits, the people they serve, and the country more broadly. In this essay, we identify some of the most likely sources of the possible upcoming damage to nonprofits, at least as they seem as of this writing, and then identify one modest glimmer of light at the end of this otherwise dark tunnel. Needless to say, however, all of this is subject to change as this most unpredictable of politicians comes to grips with the demands of governing.
One of the clearest commitments of the Trump campaign was to a significant program of tax cuts, a cornerstone of contemporary Republican orthodoxy if ever there was one. At the same time, President Trump also comes to power committed to a variety of quite “un-Republican” big spending programs – for a major infrastructure program, for military expansion and upgrading, and for that infamous border wall, all of which threaten to balloon the deficit if tax cuts are also on the agenda. Some of the proposed tax reductions may therefore never materialize. But the Trump campaign has suggested a variety of further inventive tax breaks for investors that it claims will avert the need to choose between tax cuts and robust spending increases. Under any circumstances, the continued political power of the hard-right, tax-cutting wing of the Republican Party in Congress all but ensures that the new President will paradoxically have to pay politically for his spending enthusiasms by surrendering additional portions of the government’s tax revenue needed to pay for them. And the surrenders called for in his campaign’s “Contract with the American Voter” were significant, and generally harmful to the nonprofit sector.
Thus, the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump’s plan for massive income tax reductions and simplification would decrease charitable giving by individuals by 4.5 percent to 9 percent or between $13.5 billion and $26.1 billion in 2017. 1 The projected drop in giving results from tax rate reductions that would increase the effective “price” of giving; a rise in the standard deduction that would lead to fewer taxpayers itemizing their charitable contributions and taking advantage of the tax break for giving; and a cap on itemized deductions – $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for joint filers – that would also reduce incentives to give. Eliminating the estate tax, as candidate Trump also proposed, would further diminish charitable giving and reduce the incentive of wealthy tax payers to form charitable foundations.
With an ambitious spending program and a likely strong political imperative to support further tax cuts, the Trump Administration is likely to be under especially severe pressure to make spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. Where are these cuts likely to land? Given candidate Trump’s verbal commitments to community safety, vocational and technical education, and child care, nonprofits in these fields might be spared some pain.
But programs in the rest of the budget, comprising human services, health care, job training, community development, and other fields – all program areas in which nonprofits are especially active – would suffer disproportionate cuts. While the Trump administration has not yet released detailed budget plans, it seems highly likely that large budget cuts will be in the offing, severely threatening existing programs in ways that philanthropy will be ill-equipped to offset.
Adding to the potential threats that nonprofits may be facing are a variety of potential regulatory challenges. Conservative critics in Congress have voiced concern about university and foundation endowments and donor-advised funds, questioning whether private universities are drawing sufficiently on their large endowments for student aid and other high-priority educational purposes, whether foundation payout rates are high enough, and whether charitable gift funds and donor-advised funds at community foundations or other nonprofits should be made subject to their own payout requirements. With government revenues and social spending likely to be severely constrained in coming years and with endowments and donor-advised funds looking to some like untapped – and untaxed – pockets of wealth, there is likely to be continuing pressure to require that more of this wealth be put to use for pressing social purposes or face tax or other penalties.
White House Office on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
Overall, it seems doubtful that President Trump will follow the model of his Republican predecessors in establishing a White House office focused on nonprofits and philanthropy, unless he does so for largely symbolic purposes. In light of the harsh press surrounding his own philanthropic efforts, it would seem awkward for a President Trump to create a philanthropy office intended to help offset, or even just serve as cover for, the administration’s largely negative tax, spending, and regulatory impacts on nonprofits. However, because the virtues of establishing a robust institutional home for the nonprofit sector in the federal establishment remain considerable, perhaps others in the Trump administration, such as Vice President Pence, who brings a faith-based orientation to his new position, will take on the promotion of nonprofits and philanthropy with somewhat lower profile efforts. 2 But such efforts would still likely invite public skepticism given the negative reputation already earned by the questionable charitable efforts of the new Administration’s highly visible top dog.
Instead of promoting the nonprofit sector and philanthropy to address social needs, it appears more likely that President Trump will work for an expanded role for the business sector as the best hope for putting people to work and giving them the resources they must have to meet their own needs. High-profile efforts to put Americans back to work through large infrastructure projects, deregulation of business, cutting back imports, lowering taxes on business, and earnest entreaties for more charitable giving seem much more likely than serious efforts to address the financial and other challenges likely to be facing the thousands of nonprofit organizations that day-to-day are helping to address the problems of needy Americans.
Social Ventures and Social-Purpose Finance – A Possible Bright Spot
In only one area does there seem a possible bright spot in the otherwise bleak prospect for nonprofits and organized philanthropy, and this one only partly targeting the core of the nonprofit sector. This bright spot could be the many, newly popular, hybrid approaches to addressing social problems that combine market and mission-oriented strategies. These efforts, which go by many names – social enterprises, for-benefit organizations, benefit corporations, L3Cs, Fourth Sector entities, and others – could be closer to President Trump’s sweet spot than a White House Office on Philanthropy and Nonprofit Affairs because they seek to harness the power and resources of the market to advance social good. Today, approximately thirty U.S. states have enacted new laws that, with many variations, allow organizations to register as hybrid corporations that reflect an interest in doing social good and not just maximizing profits. A recent book by one of the present authors has identified a companion set of some 3,000 social purpose investment funds as well as other new actors and tools being deployed globally in a “new frontier of philanthropy” that is seeking to leverage the private investment capital that such “social entrepreneurs” need to power their social and environmental enterprises. 3
A broad range of new strategies – from mission-related investing for foundations to social impact investing to marketing socially-useful products to the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” consumers – has surfaced around the globe. 4 Other initiatives combine hybrid approaches in one entity, such as organizations that provide job training to low-skilled workers using actual enterprises – like catering, landscaping, or furniture repair – as the training grounds and partial sources of operating income. In a sense, these efforts are a kind of reverse “Apprentice Show,” bringing less skilled and capable people in to enterprises for uplift and skill-building rather than shutting them out.
While early enthusiasts assumed that such ventures and private capital sources could replace government, it has become clear that government involvement in the form of tax incentives, set-aside provisions, regulatory requirements, and grant funding are often crucially needed. The U.S. has been a pioneer of these approaches at least in certain limited spheres, such as low-income housing, and the Obama Administration embraced some parts of a social enterprise agenda. What is still missing is a focused effort at the federal level to encourage this kind of hybrid activity. Given his penchant for creative financing and business approaches, President Trump might find a soft place in his heart for the social entrepreneurs and investors bringing innovative products and financing together in the service of social and environmental objectives.
Advocacy and Civic Engagement
One thing that seems certain about the Trump election is that it will likely ironically make the American public appreciate the existence of a strong and effective nonprofit sector as perhaps nothing else could. In other countries, officials with strong controlling instincts have come to power facing only limited accountability due to the weakness or ineffectiveness of their citizen sectors, including their networks of private, nonprofit institutions. Fortunately, America boasts a strong and effective nonprofit sector accustomed to raising issues and speaking truth to power. The advocacy and civic engagement roles of nonprofits and philanthropy are promising to be especially important in the years to come. With our nation appearing to be very divided, the nonprofit sector is apt to be an important channel through which many can express their hopes for the future, whether they agree or disagree with the new administration. Even in the first week after the election, disaffected Americans took to the streets to express their unhappiness with the election outcome.
While nonprofits are likely to be important vehicles through which such civic concerns can be articulated, Trump’s interest in allowing charitable nonprofits to participate in partisan politics seems ill-advised. Repealing the current ban on partisan political activity by nonprofits, which Mr. Trump called for in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, seems likely to undermine public trust in nonprofits and to subject nonprofits to unneeded shakedowns by politicians seeking campaign contributions.
While nonprofits are likely to remain important channels for civic engagement, whether they get drawn into political campaigns or not, civic passions will also be funneled through more informal and ephemeral social movements and “swarms” of activists. In fact, nonprofits must find better ways to adapt to the new approaches to organizing and activism if they are to maintain their relevance in future advocacy campaigns.
As surprising as Mr. Trump’s election was to many pollsters and Americans, there are undoubtedly more surprises to come from a new president who was especially vague as a candidate about his plans for the presidency. Nonprofit advocates will have their hands full in responding to the new realities and in seeking to organize their own proactive policy agenda that speaks to nonprofits’ needs and hopes for the future. We are fortunate indeed to have a nonprofit sector that is up to this task. What we have to hope is that it can muster the will to do so.
Abramson, A. J. 2016. “No taxation, no representation: How government is organized – or not – to address nonprofit issues.” In Nonprofits and government:Collaboration and conflict, 3rd ed., edited by E. T. Boris and C. Eugene Steuerle. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/Urban Institute.
Prahalad, C. K. 2004. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid: Eradicating poverty through profits. Philadelphia: Wharton School Publishing.
Salamon, L. M. 2014a. Leverage for good: An introduction to the new frontiers of philanthropy and social investment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Salamon, L. M., ed. 2014b. New frontiers of philanthropy: The actors and tools that are reshaping global philanthropy and social investing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stallworth, P., C. Lu, and C. E. Steuerle. 2016. “Tax Vox: Campaigns, Proposals, and Reforms: Both Clinton and Trump Would Reduce Tax Incentives for Charitable Giving,” November 4. http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxvox/both-clinton-and-trump-would-reduce-tax-incentives-charitable-giving
One of the authors of this paper has called for a new office on nonprofit affairs in the federal government that would represent and speak up for – rather than regulate – the nonprofit sector. See Abramson (2016).