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Donors for democracy? Philanthropy and the challenges facing America in the twenty-first century


After the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, a self-defined “resistance” movement arose to block his agenda. This movement cut across the normal boundaries of political activism to create new forms of advocacy and new models of cooperation. Major components of the resistance were ideological interest groups, women’s organizations, environmentalists, heretofore disengaged Millennials, racial and ethnic groups, community nonprofits, and, ostensibly, foundations and leading philanthropists—those we term “patrons.” We systematically examine the behavior of patrons to determine what role they played at this unique time in American history. We place this research in the context of interest group behavior, asking how patrons may have facilitated representation, altered strategic plans, reoriented advocacy, and repositioned themselves within policy communities supporting similar goals. Our findings undermine the idea that patrons played a central role in the developing resistance to the new administration, despite the fact that the new president was working against their values and the programs they support. However, a non-trivial minority of patrons, both institutional and individual, did mobilize their voice, institutional resources, and coalitions to resist the Trump agenda. These examples allow us to explore how patrons in some conditions might fulfill the roles of interest groups conventionally understood.

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  1. These foundations were selected based on giving totals for the most recent year available (2014) in the Foundation Center’s ranking. The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation was excluded as it is strictly a scholarship fund and has no significant web presence. The Richard F. Aster Foundation was also excluded as it does not have an active website. We substituted the next two largest foundations, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, to maintain this group at 20. Atlantic Philanthropies, which was among the top 20 in 2014, spent down its endowment and was no longer in existence when we began our research.

  2. The interview protocol is available at the authors’ websites.

  3. The process of identifying the 105 “policy plutocrats” was as follows. First, Goss compiled a list of America’s leading philanthropists from three sources: “(1) The Giving Pledge, through which people of wealth publicly self-identify as intending to donate more than half of their wealth during their lifetime (; The Philanthropy 50, a yearly list compiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy of the most generous charitable donors (data are for 2012, 2013, 2014; bequests are excluded); and foundations that made the Foundation Center’s Top 100 lists of the largest philanthropies (by assets and by grants) and had the donor(s) at the helm” (Goss 2016, 444). These donors’ philanthropic activities were then examined using public sources, including press accounts, websites, and Form 990 informational tax returns. From these sources, Goss identified a subgroup of policy-oriented donors who met one of these conditions: “(1) identified one of [the five policy process] goals in their Giving Pledge; (2) gave at least one $100,000 grant from their private foundation, in the most recent reporting year, to further a policy goal; (3) identified public policy interests on their foundation or personal website; (4) contributed any amount to a campaign organization oriented around a specific policy issue (e.g., abortion rights) between 2010 and mid-2015; or (5) were publicly identified as having founded a policy-advocacy organization” (Goss 2016, 445). The list of donors is current as of May 2016.


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Correspondence to Kristin A. Goss.

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Berry, J.M., Goss, K.A. Donors for democracy? Philanthropy and the challenges facing America in the twenty-first century. Int Groups Adv 7, 233–257 (2018).

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  • Philanthropy
  • Political participation
  • Civil society
  • Elections
  • Interest groups
  • American politics