Manhattan Institute

Woke Foundations

Some of America’s most august charitable institutions are embracing radical politics.

When the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation switched from supporting the arts and humanities to “prioritizing social justice in all of its grantmaking” this summer, its press release described the shift as a “major strategic evolution” and a “reinvigorated mission.” This doublespeak does not cover up the reality that the foundation’s board has abandoned the intent of its donor. Andrew Mellon, who made his fortune as a banker and an attorney and helped finance some of the largest and longest-lasting corporations in America, donated during his lifetime to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Art, and Carnegie Mellon University. The Mellon Foundation has long been a leader in support of the arts and humanities across the United States.

The Mellon Foundation is hardly alone in abandoning the vision of its founder. Institutions like the Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations long ago rejected their founding ideals—particularly their belief in capitalism—to follow the latest fads in academia and elite culture. The legacies of these industry titans now flow to the coffers of Marxist scholars who cite racial, gender, or environmental reasons for dismantling our system of free enterprise. Donor funds now go to advocacy groups looking to undermine the rule of law and eliminate the governmental and nongovernmental institutions responsible for American freedom and prosperity.

In recent weeks and months, these organizations have moved even further down this path in response to protests, demonstrations, and urban riots. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted, “commitments from foundations to combat systemic racism have topped $1 billion” since protests against systemic racism began in late May, and the announcements keep coming. “Some are spending money for the first time on efforts to eradicate anti-Black racism,” the Chronicle enthuses. They are spending money in this area “for the first time” because their founders never expected (or intended) that their funds would be allocated in this way.

One might have hoped that the number and diversity of philanthropists across the United States would have served as a buffer against the hysteria that has overtaken much of the country. The silence of foundation leaders was deafening in response to the riots and mayhem that began in late May and early June. Why haven’t any been willing to stand up and say that national monuments should not be defaced or destroyed? Where were the donors to the American Museum of Natural History when the leaders there decided to take down the statue of President Theodore Roosevelt? Where are the foundation leaders willing to say that the rioting of the 1960s wrought destruction on American cities—and that the riots of 2020 are likely to have the same result?

Foundations form the backbone of what some call the “independent sector.” They operate independently of government funding or market forces—or even public opinion. Yet today, foundation executives and trustees are rushing to join the new bandwagon led by Black Lives Matter and “social justice” advocates. So much for independence.

Foundation leaders and their staffs are not immune to fashionable ideologies. It would be convenient to say that they are just accommodating social trends in order to preserve their networks and social standing, but in fact trustees are hiring these leaders specifically to bring a more “woke” perspective to their organizations. Most of these executives come from other foundations, academia, or the world of political activism. Elizabeth Alexander, hired to lead the Mellon Foundation, came by way of the Ford Foundation, where she served as the director of Creativity and Free Expression. According to her online biography, she “co-designed the Art for Justice Fund—an initiative that uses art and advocacy to address the crisis of mass incarceration.” Considering her background, it’s not surprising that she is leading the Mellon Foundation on its voguish path.

What’s happening in the nonprofit sector right now is a tragedy. When this moment in America has passed, and we’re left to deal with burned cities, vandalized buildings, and schools lost in a sea of intellectual nonsense, we could really use a foundation or two devoted to supporting the arts and humanities.

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