When Elise Westhoff, now president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, an organization of charitable donors, was a small child, she saw her father for the last time.
“I’ll never forget the last days I spent with my biological father,” Westhoff wrote in USA Today. Elise’s father, who suffered from severe mental illness, was taken into custody. The next day, Elise’s mother sat the child down for a talk.
“You aren’t always dealt the best hand,” she remembers her mother saying, to her and her brother, “but you never give up and fold. You keep playing to the best of your ability. You work harder than you think is possible. And you have faith that the next hand will be better than the last.”
Elise’s stepfather later drove home the same point when he talked to his stepdaughter about his own hardscrabble life, with his father in jail, in rural Indiana. “Like my mother, he helped me see that everyone is capable of charting a better path,” Elise wrote.
With such a background, it is not surprising that Elise, who graduated from the Indiana University in Bloomington with a B.A. in history, criminal justice, and political science in 2003, would seek a career in philanthropy. She knew that philanthropy, rightly deployed, could help people overcome obstacles and lead meaningful lives. Westhoff racked up quite a resume in the field of philanthropy: executive director and first-non family staff member for the Snider Foundation in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; director of major gifts for neuroscience programs at the Indiana University School of Medicine; planned giving and major gifts for the New York Public Library. Westhoff joined the Philanthropy Roundtable as President and CEO in June 2020.
“The Philanthropy Roundtable is a community of donors,” Westhoff explains, “who are committed to advancing liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility through effective charitable giving. So, we focus on values-based giving. We believe that our values improve lives. So, we do that through three pillars: promoting America’s founding principles, strengthening communities, and creating pathways to opportunity for every person.
Prestigious grantmakers such as the Mellon and Ford Foundations are trailblazers in “woke philanthropy.”
“We bring people together through convenings, we highlight excellent nonprofits that are doing great work so that donors can invest in them and advance our values through their charitable giving. In order to do that effectively, we think it’s essential for people to have philanthropic freedom, so that is the policy area that we focus on at the Roundtable. We fight for donor privacy, we fight against mandates on how foundations and nonprofits operate, and we try to promote what we call philanthropic freedom, which is the right of donors to give how, when, and where they choose.”
Lately, these commonsense ideas have become controversial in the philanthropy world. Indeed, Westhoff has observed a disturbing trend in the philanthropic field: a shift by many organizations away from an emphasis on generosity and helping people live meaningful lives towards what has been dubbed “woke philanthropy.” “Woke philanthropy” directs efforts towards such goals as ending “systemic racism” and “inequity.” Prestigious grant makers such as the Mellon and Ford Foundations are trailblazers in woke philanthropy.
Westhoff took sides with an April 2021 USA Today column headlined “People-focused Philanthropy is on the way out. A philanthropy that divides us is taking over.” It did not endear her to woke philanthropy advocates. “No doubt [the woke] approach is well-intentioned,” Westhoff wrote. “In a recent ‘60 Minutes’ interview, one of America’s most prominent philanthropists, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, described it as a shift from generosity to justice. The head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has historically been the largest supporter of the arts and humanities, announced that all future grants will focus on ‘social justice.’
“Yet beneath these words lies a profound shift in how philanthropy operates. Leading philanthropic thinkers and activists are pushing foundations to support political advocacy, grassroots organizing and government-run efforts to redistribute wealth and power.”
Westhoff’s column attracted a great deal of attention, immediately becoming controversial. She had to write it, though. “I felt inspired to write the USA Today piece,” Westhoff tells IWF, “because I was drawn to philanthropy and to the nonprofit world because of experiences that my own family faced overcoming challenges. After spending many years in this sector, I have seen a huge shift in how people are approaching the job of philanthropy, which in my view is to help equip struggling people and communities with the tools they need to overcome challenges. Those things include hard work, education, faith, and personal responsibility. And, unfortunately, in the philanthropic sector, what we now see is really a lot of money being spent and a lot of focus on increasing the role of government and promoting this worldview of victim and oppressor where there are winners and losers based on things like your skin color, and your gender, and your sexual orientation.”
“It’s a disempowering view of the world and not one that the Philanthropy Roundtable and I share,” she continues. “I really truly believe that people have the power to overcome challenges and that we’re very lucky to live in a country that allows us so much freedom and opportunity, and that the best way to help people is to share the values of liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility and instill those in people who are struggling.”
“At the Roundtable, we believe that people are much more complicated, and that each individual is unique and that we should take the opportunity to get to know each individual and understand them as a person, understand their skills, their backgrounds, their unique experiences, and that should be the focus rather than simply a box-checking exercise that we see so often in philanthropy. This is something that has really had profound effects on the way that philanthropy operates because we see a lot of nonprofits unable to get funding because they’re being judged for not serving the ‘right communities,’ even if those communities are struggling.”
“You aren’t always dealt the best hand,” she remembers her mother saying to her and her brother, “but you never give up and fold.”
As part of this effort to focus on people rather than “identities,” the Philanthropy Roundtable put out an impressive video on “true diversity” narrated by Vivek Ramaswamy, bestselling author, entrepreneur, and self-described critic of the woke-industrial complex. “According to some, you and I are each defined by the characteristics we inherited on the day we were born,” Ramaswamy says. “When I look at my neighbor, I am expected to see not my neighbor but my black neighbor. I reject that narrative. I am the author of my own destiny, sometimes for the best and sometimes for the worst.” “True diversity,” as Ramaswamy makes clear, is more complicated—and more rewarding—than pigeonholing people in identity group boxes.
“At the Philanthropy Roundtable,” says Elise, “we try to promote organizations that are doing good work and that share our values. We are interested in organizations like one called Better Together that works with families to keep them together and help them overcome challenges so that they’re able to avoid the foster care system and stay together. It’s a church-based group. They connect people with job training, mental health resources, and other things that they might need when they’re at risk of having their children go to foster care.”
A Wall Street Journal profile of Westhoff emphasized how ideological giving can stifle true diversity. “I think when you start imposing those ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds,’ you really limit human generosity,” Westhoff told the Wall Street Journal. “There are a lot of different kinds of people in this country, and there are a lot of people in need. And, by the way, there are people who want to help animals, and they should be able to do that. And people who want to work on climate change.” The pandemic ended up being a stellar moment for private charity to show its nimbleness.
“The pandemic has really illustrated the importance of civil society, the importance of the work that is done by nonprofits,” Westhoff tells IWF. “Government just isn’t equipped to handle and should not handle every single problem that arises. Each community is unique. And, private voluntary action has led to solving so many of society’s challenges. So, as you think about the pandemic, we had people in certain communities who did not trust the government. So, think about things like vaccine delivery.
“That was something that churches and synagogues were able to help with because they had the trust of their communities, whereas the government didn’t necessarily. We saw nonprofits step up to get resources, to get groceries, and food, and other supplies to people who weren’t able to go out. This is a really important example of the way that the government was really floundering during the pandemic to get help to people in need, but nonprofits are flexible, and quick, and nimble, and able to respond to their local communities and they also have the trust of their local communities, which enables them to be, you know, very effective in helping communities in need.”
Another goal of the Philanthropy Roundtable is preserving donor intent. We all know about famous foundations that are doing the exact opposite of what the founders who set up and funded these institutions long ago intended. The colloquial expression “turning in her grave” comes to mind when we think what founders would think if they could see the uses to which their funds are now being put. The Philanthropy Roundtable works to ensure that foundations can’t be “captured” by officers who have disregard for donor intent.
“One of the key areas of focus of the Roundtable is helping donors understand the importance of capturing what they intend to do with their money so that the missions and values of the founder will be reflected in perpetuity,” Elise explains. “We have seen, obviously, really egregious examples of foundations not being managed in any way, shape, or form according to the founders’ values. Some of the very big ones that would be recognizable to all of us have really gone off course. Ultimately, this falls on the founders and how they set up their institutions. You have to be very careful to make sure your money is used as you intended. Write it down, memorialize it in your bylaws and a donor intent letter, give specific examples of how you want the money to be spent.
Under the noble-sounding banner of “donor transparency” the left has waged a long war against donor privacy, another concern of the Philanthropy Roundtable. “Donors have faced intimidation and threats of violence simply for supporting causes they believe in,” Westhoff told Naomi Schaefer Riley for a profile in the Wall Street Journal. The Roundtable filed a friend of the court brief in favor of petitioners when the Supreme Court heard Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta, the most significant donor privacy case in recent memory.
When the Justices voted 6-3 to strike down a California law that would force nonprofits to disclose large contributors, Westhoff was able to breathe a sigh of relief. But the war on donor privacy continues, with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, leading the charge against what Whitehouse and others call “dark money,” or funds donated to a cause or project anonymously, and put to a use that Senator Whitehouse doesn’t approve.
Elise lives in Washington, D.C., with her three sons, 4, 7, and 10. She is an avid runner who often starts her day with a morning run.
In upholding the ideal of people-focused philanthropy, the Philanthropy Roundtable is “swimming against a powerful tide,” observed the Wall Street Journal. Elise Westhoff’s early challenges and career at top nonprofits has equipped her to swim against that powerful tide and ensure that the Philanthropy Roundtable is there to help generous people who want their philanthropic contributions to reflect their values.