“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln famously remarked. Then again, Lincoln didn’t know Donald and Paula Smith.
Several years back these two donors decided to start an operating foundation, but disagreed as to how the money should be spent. Donald Smith is a libertarian, but his wife, Paula, is a liberal. Their two daughters, both of whom sit on the foundation’s board, also sit on opposite sides of the political fence. “Two in the family wanted to pursue liberal causes,” Donald Smith tells Philanthropy, but “I objected to this.” He further reasoned that if each family member pursued his own interest, their efforts would “simply cancel each other out.”
Paula Smith then hit upon an idea. “If you’re so sure your libertarian ideas are right,” she told her husband, “let’s give our money to something that will test the waters.” Donald Smith liked the idea, and the two agreed to host a series of public debates in New York City with speakers who would represent the full spectrum of political opinion on pressing topics. “There are lots of liberal and conservative places hosting speakers in New York,” Donald Smith says, “but few places you can go to hear an even-handed argument.”
The first planned debate got off to a rocky start—it was scheduled for September 2001. Like New York City, however, the Smith’s plans were merely delayed by the terrorist attacks, not stopped. The first public forum was held a month later at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. Since then, two presentations and 14 additional debates have been held on topics ranging from civil liberties to wartime economic policy. One especially lively debate occurred when Fred Krupp, the executive director of Environmental Defense, squared off with Bjorn Lomborg, author of the controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Other speakers have included Richard Perle of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy board and ACLU president Nadine Strossen.
Currently, between 300 and 400 people attend the monthly gatherings. The debates are free and open to everyone, but the Smiths especially try to attract college students, journalists, and New York City’s community leaders. “We want to get at young minds,” Donald Smith explains.
Following each debate, the Smiths invite a small group of people, usually no more than 20, to dine with the panelists. There, especially, the two make sure that all sides are well represented. The arguments don’t stop during dinner, and occasionally people get their feelings hurt, but for most who attend, it’s the highlight of the evening.
Two problems in putting the debates together have proven especially difficult; first, deciding how the debate should be framed. For some issues, Donald Smith says, “there are so many different positions, it’s difficult to find speakers who will cover all the points.” The January 2003 debate on immigration is a good example: “There are extreme positions left and right, and a hundred points in between.” What made it more difficult were the passions the topic brought out. Paula Smith remembers the discussion became so animated that the audience had to be restrained. A second problem involves the question and answer period at the end. “I wanted a microphone that people could step up to and ask questions,” says Paula Smith, but her husband worried audience members would use the time to deliver speeches instead of asking questions. So they decided to have audience members write their questions on cards, which are then read to the panelists. “We’re still working on this issue,” says Paula Smith.
New Yorkers are responding well. The Smiths both say that people occasionally stop them on the street to praise the debates—something that still surprises both of them. And from time to time, there are public examples of how the debates affect individuals. Donald Smith recently learned of one New Yorker who changed from liberal to libertarian after attending a debate and is now running for city council.
Have the debates affected the Smiths’ views as well? Both concede that Paula Smith is the more flexible of the two. “I’m the only open-minded one in the family,” she jokes. She recalls that Richard Butler of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former U.N. weapons inspector, convinced her that “my total anti-war stance had to be modified. We have to do something,” she says. Likewise, Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, affected Donald Smith’s views on Iraq: “I still think this could have been done some other way, but I was influenced by Perle.”
The Smiths hope that as attendance grows, they’ll be able to formalize the event into a club. People would join and pay modest membership fees to attend the events, and the club would become a self-sustaining organization. “Then we could take the foundation in a different direction,” Donald Smith says.
Martin Davis is managing editor of Philanthropy.