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Leading with Courage Spotlight: Increased Political Polarization


By Scott Westcott

This post is the first in a series that continues to explore the themes and ideas in our report, Leading with Courage: Reshaping Southern Philanthropy for New Era.

The 2024 presidential election is still 18 months away, but already the temperature is rising.

With a potential rematch looming between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, America’s deep political divide will be on full display for the foreseeable future.

The implications of growing political polarization on Southern philanthropy, and the communities it serves, was one of the emerging trends highlighted in Leading with Courage, a recently released report by Philanthropy Southeast.

Polarization touches nearly every aspect of American society – and it is increasingly affecting the work of philanthropic organizations. Polarization has challenged foundations on how to frame and execute on equity initiatives, in some instances leading to a chilling effect on equity training programs that had gained momentum in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

Molly Talbot-Metz, president of the Mary Black Foundation in Spartanburg, South Carolina, notes that nearly every aspect of the health foundation’s work – advocating for preventative practices related to the pandemic, Medicaid expansion or access to contraception – has increasingly been viewed through a political lens.

“We certainly weren’t trying to make political statements, but through the very nature of our work some have seen it that way,” Talbot-Metz said.

Michael Murray, president of Arthur Vining Davis Foundations in Florida, describes the political environment as “extremely challenging,” emphasizing that as views harden and more people identify with specific political ideology, finding common ground becomes more difficult.

Yet philanthropy continues to seek ways to bridge divides through a wide range of programs and initiatives that are specifically focused on bringing together those who have starkly different ideologies or backgrounds. 

The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations has championed one such program, Bridging the Gap, which focuses on increasing religious literacy to bring together people who wouldn’t likely interact, much less engage in meaningful conversations. With religion often a key component of political ideology, the program has shown initial potential as a results-driven model for broader progress.

Adding complexity to the polarization issue is the role philanthropy should play in democracy-related work, a topic that is particularly relevant in Georgia, where the ongoing investigation of former President Trump into election meddling and passage of controversial voting laws have raised the stakes for philanthropy.

Jerry Gonzalez, who in addition to serving as a trustee of the North Carolina-based family Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is also CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund, argues that philanthropy should embrace the role of convenor to leverage its “the bully pulpit of influence” to proactively address democracy challenges.

“We need to look at the whole scope of how philanthropy can engage during this time because ultimately preserving democracy is vital to all of the other things that philanthropy cares about,” Gonzalez said.

Access the Leading With Courage report to read the full article on how Southern philanthropy is being impacted by – an responding to – political polarization.

Scott Westcott is a co-founder of Turn Two Communications, which supported Philanthropy Southeast in the creation of the Leading with Courage report.

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