Interview: David Biemesderfer, United Philanthropy Forum

The United Philanthropy Forum (UPF) has brought together many of the US’s infrastructure bodies in a meta-network. Does its CEO, David Biemesderfer, see a European parallel in European philanthropy body, DAFNE? He sat down with Charles Keidan at Dafne’s PEXforum2020 in Madrid to discuss the key role of philanthropy infrastructure and the development of the United Philanthropy Forum.

United Philanthropy Forum was previously known as the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers until 2017. What led to that change?
The Forum has been around since 1998, and was originally a network for the 33 US regional philanthropy associations to help them learn and share with each other, take collective action and gain efficiencies through collaboration. We had a lot of success in terms building the capacity in areas like public policy and technology, but in 2015, when the previous CEO left, the Forum board decided to think about why we existed. Since we were founded, there have been a lot of changes in philanthropy and a lot more infrastructure groups have been formed and we wanted to understand how we could make the greatest impact, so we interviewed a lot of people, our members, our funders, and our national partners, because apart from the regional associations, there are 50 or so national philanthropy associations based on issues like identity of the target audience and interest area.

When we talked to the national associations, we heard two things. One was that the associations of what we now call national philanthropy serving organisations, the PSOs, did not have a network like the Forum to support their work, and wanted one. They felt they were often on their own to figure out how do their work, who they should connect with and who their colleagues are, because it’s a very specific thing to run a philanthropy association. The second thing was that the infrastructure was not working together as well as it should, and the issues that funders were addressing weren’t getting better, in some cases getting worse, and people realised that we could only make a difference if we work together.

And that led to the birth of the United Philanthropy Forum?
Yes. We decided we needed to be a broader network for all philanthropy infrastructure, not just the regionally focused PSOs but also the national PSOs so we revamped everything – our governance structure, our member services, our internal operations, our mission and vision. which is to catalyse a courageous philanthropic sector that creates a just and equitable society where all can participate and prosper – and launched the United Philanthropy Forum in 2017.

That sounds like a framing to lead your members as well as serve them?
Our vision is to do both. We’ve grown from those original 33 regional PSO to 84 regional and national PSO members, representing more than 7,000 funders in the US. We focus on three things. One is to help our members be as effective as they can, supporting their work through networking opportunities, resources, research and so on. Number two is that we help create a space for all the PSOs to collaborate more. That happens organically but also we intentionally create opportunities. And the third thing is to try to find issues where we can really move change in the US by all of our members working on a few shared goals. We feel that there’s a lot of power for philanthropy in that networked approach. So we’ll take an issue like racial equity. How you work on that in San Francisco is going to be very different from how you do it in Atlanta, it’s going to be different for homelessness funders, than it is for arts funders. We can provide the tools and the resources and the shared goal and each of our members can move the issue in the ways that make the most sense for their membership. Over the last few years we’ve taken that networked approach on racial equity and on engaging philanthropy in the 2020 census, and I think we’ve had some progress in both of those areas.

‘We wanted funders to advocate for a fair and accurate census count.’

What successes have you been really proud of?
The census initiative. I came on board as 2016 as the CEO, when there was a small group of funders trying to engage more funders in ensuring a fair and accurate census count. There’s a census every ten years and historically, a lot of the groups funders care most about, which are low-income communities, communities of colour, tend to be the most undercounted, which means they get less resources from the government in the long run because it apportions a lot of funding based on the census numbers. So we determined this was a role the Forum could play and we also engaged our regional and national PSO members in this. A key partner for us was the Funders Committee for Civic Participation, a new Forum member that is a national expert on the census work.

You can use what influence you have and can multiply it and have a much bigger effect by working in partnership with others

So you wanted to tap your networks on this issue?
And give them resources and information about how to move their members – giving them financial resources to help them run programmes and bringing together cohorts of funders. One goal was to increase local government and foundation funding for the census and we can tie over $200m in that funding for the census directly to the work of our members, which is many times greater that what happened in 2010. We also wanted funders to advocate for a fair and accurate census count. It is supposed to count everybody, citizens and non-citizens, and there was a move by the Trump administration to add a question asking respondents whether they are citizens, and there was a fear that because of it, non-citizens, who are already some of the most vulnerable people in the US, would not complete the census. So we partnered with FCCP to create a sign-on letter with about 33 of our members, and another one with about 300 foundations opposing the citizenship question and petitioned the Supreme Court on the issue. In the end, we managed to keep the question off the census.

That example seems to reflect a more liberal thrust in philanthropy, a willingness to think about democratising power and to embrace some of the criticisms of philanthropy. Does that come from you or your members, or is just that networks are able to be a bit more reflective in the questions they ask each other and themselves?
I think it’s all of those things. When we created the United Philanthropy Forum, we didn’t set out to occupy a specific space on the ideological spectrum in the US, but infrastructure groups and PSOs in general have the power to set agendas and to put issues in front of funders that we think are important.

Do you get any challenge from those PSOs that don’t share the political values?
We tend not to. Some of our members may get pushback from their members. Again, that’s the beauty of a network. For example, some of our members have chosen to get very engaged in the census question, others less so, but they could still take the resources we gave them and share them with their members without necessarily having a point of view about it, so that gives us reach, and it gives them some cover.

One of your other activities is educating and engaging with your members around advocacy and in particular lobbying I presume.
A little bit of lobbying but a lot of advocacy and policy work. One thing that we’ve been doing for a long time is build the capacity of the PSOs to engage in public policy themselves and to help engage their foundation members in policy.

All of us care about the charitable deduction, that’s one thing we’re unified in pushing for.

David speaking to Amanda Misiko Andere of Funders Together to End Homelessness on the ForumNation podcast.

What’s on the agenda?
Some of that capacity building is just general capacity building. How do you do this work and how do you do it better? We also do an annual Foundations on the Hill event where we set priorities for the field for the year, which historically have been issues relating to defence of the sector, things that will increase giving, so for example creating a universal charitable deduction so that all Americans have an incentive to give or to give more. Encouraging the federal government to fully fund the census has now come on our agenda in the last three years.

Has the birth of the United Philanthropy Forum, and in particular your work around advocacy, affected other national infrastructure bodies like the Council on Foundations?
We work really closely with the Council on Foundations and with other national associations. There’s a group of five national groups that work closely on policy: the Forum, the Council on Foundations, the Independent Sector, the Philanthropy Roundtable and the National Council of Non-profits.

Do you have a unified view?
Sometimes all five of us agree on an issues, sometimes it’ll just be three or four of us, but the main thing is we all know what everyone else is doing. Sometimes it makes more sense for one group to take the lead and for the rest of us to follow and visa versa. Every issue is different. All of us care about the charitable deduction, that’s one thing we’re unified in pushing for.

Payouts are a big issue for the foundation world. In the US, there’s a 5 per cent payout requirement for private foundations but not for donor-advised funds or community foundations – what’s your position on that?
We don’t have a position on that.

What do you think should happen?
I think that’s an issue for our five national policy groups to determine and we’re in discussion now about the approach to it. There’s a lot of data that shows that on average donor-advised funds give out above 5 per cent, so I think the issue is more about dormant or inactive funds than payout.

For any funder, however wealthy, I think it’s important to be engaged with the broader philanthropy sector and not come in thinking you have all the answers.

We’re here in Madrid at PEXforum2020, the first philanthropy forum to bring together both regional, national and thematic European philanthropy membership networks. What’s your view of the progress being made in bringing together infrastructure bodies in Europe?
It’s really exciting. When I became CEO of the Forum in 2016, I started to engage with DAFNE. I went to some of their meetings, and Max [von Abendroth] who runs DAFNE came to our conference in 2018 and tells me he was inspired by that to create this PEXforum, so from my point of view it’s exciting that we’ve played a small part in inspiring this and I see some similarities in the synergies here to what happened when we first brought everyone together in the US.

PEXForum2020 aimed to provide a unique space to create a European philanthropy identity as a common ground to jointly advance the philanthropy ecosystem in a changing world.

There seem to be some very clear parallels between DAFNE and the United Philanthropy Forum, but you are independent from the Council on Foundations, whereas there’s talk of DAFNE and the EFC merging. Would you ever see yourself merging with the COF?
No. The COF is actually a member of the Forum, which is great. They’re fully engaged as a part of the infrastructure groups, so that’s the model that works for us. There’s been no talk of mergers in the US.

Anything else you’d like to add?
At the United Philanthropy Forum, we’re looking at what other issues our whole network can engage in collectively, and because we’ve got a lot more funders involved in the census work, this might lead to some engagement around protecting and ensuring a stronger democracy in the US, which has been under threat over the last few years.

Not just in the US.
Not just in the US, but in the US in ways some people didn’t think would happen, and we’re going to highlight that at our annual conference. We’re also going to look at what role our network might play in the issue of climate change. We’ve got a small group of members working on that now but a lot more trying to figure it out, so I’ve been talking to people here about how we might learn from each other.

I don’t think it’s a matter of too much power, it’s how you use it.

By the time this is published, Alliance will have announced our own commitment to weekly coverage of climate philanthropy over the next decade. Are we going to have enough to cover in the American and global philanthropy sector?
I think so. Some of our members like the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Biodiversity Funders Group, Health and Environmental Funders Network, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders have come together with a few others to talk about it so our network will be paying close attention to it. We have an obligation to figure out our role in this. We can’t ignore it and we have to work together across DAFNE and WINGS to do that.

Talking about democracy, the question has been raised about whether the philanthropy of our most wealthy citizens can undermine rather than support democracy. Do you think someone like Bill Gates has too much power?
I don’t think it’s a matter of too much power, it’s how you use it. Not just for Bill Gates, but for any funder, however wealthy, I think it’s important to be engaged with the broader philanthropy sector and not come in thinking you have all the answers. When you’re dealing with a new region or a new issue, there’s a lot you can learn from other funders so you should be engaging with the PSOs that are out there as well. And if you engage in policy work, you can use what influence you have and can multiply it and have a much bigger effect by working in partnership with others.

Charles Keidan is editor of Alliance magazine

Feartured image: David Speaking at #ForumCon19 Credit: United Philanthropy Forum ©

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