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Home / News and Insights / Insights / Are the culture wars having a chilling effect on philanthropy?

One way or another, charities are being drawn into what is commonly referred to as the ‘culture wars’.

It can take a variety of forms: The National Trust found itself in the spotlight for exploring the colonial history of some of its properties leading to headlines such as ‘woke virus infects the National Trust’; we have seen right-wing politicians attack the RNLI for being ‘woke and out of touch’ for rescuing drowning migrants; and the Charity Commission caused consternation when it’s (now former) Chair, Baroness Stowell made a number of provocative statements indicating that ‘charities must respect every view point, even those which are diametrically opposed to their charitable aims’ or risk being seen as political, which many charities saw as a threat to their legitimate ability to campaign.

Exactly what constitutes a ‘culture war’ is itself an issue about which those engaged in culture wars disagree. What seems clear is that a ‘culture war’ is much more than a disagreement but describes a sense of conflict between two utterly opposed world views, leaving no room for compromise in the centre ground. The potential chilling effect on philanthropy is already of concern to the charity sector. With the rise of cancel culture, philanthropists may be put off supporting unpopular, unfashionable or perhaps untested ideas so as to avoid exposure to social media outrage. In the US donors often look to preserve their anonymity using a donor advised fund in order to contribute to their selected charities. However, this route has not gone unnoticed; one of the largest US donor advised funds, Fidelity Charitable, which distributes approximately $9billion a year, was handed a disclosure list from a group of political activists who loudly demanded that Fidelity provide donor information in relation to specific charities with which the activists disagreed. Whilst their demands went unanswered, it demonstrated the appetite and willingness to use cancel culture as a threat to discourage philanthropy.

Recent media stories which have vilified historic philanthropists because their wealth was linked to slavery or other exploitative activities may also cause hesitancy among philanthropists of today. Modern philanthropists may feel concerned that their source of wealth will be similarly scrutinised and tainted either by the sins of the past or because it is in some way associated with scandal or hypocrisy. Indeed, there is a perception that climate issues have not been fully embraced by philanthropy partly because it may put a spotlight on lavish lifestyles which are far from carbon neutral.

Family philanthropy is often thought to provide a valuable tool in helping to unite family members in support of common causes and developing shared social values. However, the culture wars are often viewed as ‘generation wars’ with GenZs, millennials and boomers often holding views which are diametrically opposed in relation to real world issues which, in recent times, have been exacerbated by Brexit, the pandemic and social media that is intent on stoking culture war division.

It is undoubtedly the case that the culture war narrative creates division and does create a potential risk to philanthropic funding. However, there is clearly a role to be played by philanthropy in facilitating open discussion, fostering an environment of mutual understanding in light of the cultural shifts which are taking place. This will require adaptation on all sides and an effort to identify intersections between social causes that were not immediately obvious. In this way philanthropy can help shift the focus toward areas of agreement and overlap. Indeed there perhaps has never been a better time to initiate a conversation about shared values with a view to integrating what otherwise might be perceived as binary issues.

The late film maker Albert Maysles once memorably said ‘tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance’ which is perhaps an accurate assessment of the prevailing culture wars zeitgeist and perhaps it is here that philanthropy can play a meaningful role.

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