Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists
edited by Amy A. Kass
Indiana University Press, 2008
xxvi + 490 pp., $50 hardcover, $19.95 paperback
Anyone who ever gave an allowance to a 10-year-old knows how hard it is to do good by giving away money. As the money multiplies, so do the problems. The difficulty has been noted many times, but few people have probed it in pursuit of wisdom.
Enter Amy Kass, senior lecturer in the humanities at the University of Chicago and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Her new anthology, Giving Well, Doing Good, offers an overflowing feast of wisdom. The book consists of 82 brief readings, averaging perhaps three pages, with authors ranging from Plato to Henry James to Muhammad Yunus, the godfather of microlending.
The collection is organized into six topical sections, each of which gathers readings that engage a few critical questions raised by the section’s theme. They are:
1. Goals and Intentions. What should philanthropy aim to do? Readings from Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, W.E.B. DuBois, Pope Benedict XVI, and others.
2. Gifts, Donors, Recipients; Grants, Grantors, Grantees. What is the meaning of a grant or gift? What sorts of relationships and obligations does a grant or gift imply for givers and receivers? Aristotle, Seneca, Maimonides, Pablo Eisenberg, Thomas Paine, and others.
3. Bequests and Legacies. What is the relationship between a bequest and a legacy? What should guide those who give (and those who receive) bequests? How should we prepare for the next generation? Shelley, E.M. Forster, Shakespeare, Henry James, Julius Rosenwald, Waldemar Nielsen, and others.
4. Effectiveness. What is required for effective philanthropy? How should we judge philanthropy’s effectiveness? Tolstoy, Andrew Carnegie, Irving Kristol, Chekhov, Hawthorne, William Schambra, and others.
5. Accountability. For what-and to whom -should philanthropy be responsible? How should we educate donors to assume that responsibility? Plato, Peter Frumkin, Michael Joyce, Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Emerson, Ralph Ellison, Benjamin Franklin, and others.
6. Philanthropic Leadership. What should we expect of philanthropic leaders? Lao Tzu, Aeschylus, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Addams, Paul Ylvisaker, John Gardner, and others.
Kass does not lay out this feast with the idea that the donor should pass through quickly, stuff himself with every morsel, and consider himself filled with wisdom. Quite the opposite. The book grew out of Kass’s years of experience leading seminars for donors in which a group would focus on only one of these brief stories or essays, and then spend an hour debating the issues it illuminates. So don’t let the book’s length daunt you: readers are “free to pick and choose what they will,” for the collection “is not one-size-fits-all. Its purpose is to help all who care about philanthropy—both seasoned laborers and neophytes in the philanthropic vineyard, as well as would-be philanthropists—better understand their own professional or personal giving practices.”
True to her reputation as one of the University of Chicago’s latter-day Socrates, she hopes not to indoctrinate her readers but to help them probe their own notions and test them against conflicting ideas. Neither her selections nor her brief introductions to them press her own views upon you; indeed, they often present frankly conflicting views.
Nevertheless, Kass does not intend this as a theoretical enterprise for scholars. Nor is she a crude relativist who thinks that, because you should consider differing views with an open mind, what you finally choose to do makes no difference. Practical wisdom is her goal. She wants to “encourage us to identify and think with characters faced with concrete decisions of the sort that anyone engaged in philanthropic activity is obliged to ponder.” Far from believing that you need not worry whether your decisions are wise or foolish, she challenges the reader with a sharp warning from the great English economist Walter Bagehot: “It is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does more harm than good.”
To take one example: in the section on bequests and legacies, Kass presents the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which depicts a quarrel between an aging father and his children over the disposition of his estate. Any reader, much less any donor with children, is vividly reminded how easy it is to sow the seeds of future tragedy by misunderstandings in a family, how hard it is to deal wisely with children who may be quite different from their parents, and how challenging it is to divide all that a successful life has accumulated. Kass knows that the stakes are high, and that wisdom, though elusive, is invaluable.
(She is surely right, too, that a great hunger exists among donors for guidance. A few years ago, The Philanthropy Roundtable offered an Annual Meeting session with Kass in which donors would read and discuss a brief writing of the Jewish sage Maimonides. The response was so great that a second overflow session had to be offered. As a witness to both sessions, I saw donors engage vigorously in the discussion and emerge pleased with the increased clarity they had about their tasks.)
Kass opens the anthology with a short introduction that provides a brief history of philanthropy in America and then raises the questions to which the book returns again and again. Though her introduction is not at all doctrinaire, it asks perhaps the most challenging question of all, one on which not even this most open-minded of books can be entirely neutral: Is good giving something that everyone is meant to do, or must a few superior souls rule the rest of us in this field? After all, if philanthropy is too much for most of us to handle, there is no need for a book that challenges all of us to search for the best ways to help others.
The issue comes into sharp relief when Kass reviews the current debate over whether the nation should “reform” the charitable sector, either through more stringent self-regulation or through more legal regulation and oversight from Congress, state attorneys general, and the IRS. Kass’ response is worth quoting at length:
It is clear that new codes, rules, and regulations will not be enough, not even to accomplish their purpose of improving professional integrity. Such strictures abstract from the rich context of moral choice, ignore the motives and passions that lead people to give, and fail to reach the moral sensibilities and habits of the heart of particular agents. They also pay little if any attention to the big practical question: how to get people to practice what is preached.
To put it another way, the wisdom in Kass’s book teaches us the necessity of seeking wisdom, not merely expertise, whether that expertise is governmental or private. Appropriately, the book’s first and final readings take this necessity as their theme. In the first reading, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the most penetrating book ever written on America, declares that “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.” That is why he praises the exceptional habit among Americans of forming private “associations,” by which he means all the institutions that make up civil society. As Kass summarizes Tocqueville’s argument, “Only by cultivating the habit of associating, only by immersing themselves in larger public concerns, can private individuals become self-governing citizens.”
The alternative to this universal mutual engagement is to hand matters over to “experts.” Even in his day Tocqueville saw many who preferred “to render the government more skillful and more active in order that society be able to execute what individuals can no longer do.” Tocqueville decried the vicious circle thereby created, in which the more we lose the habit of associating with others in civil society, the more we need government to come to our aid. Like Kass, he warns that this impersonal aid from above is “always insufficient and often dangerous.”
The book’s final selection is by William Schambra of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. In it, Schambra argues that large private philanthropies can make an analogous error and warns, in Kass’s summary, “of the dangers of a top-down, expert-driven philanthropy.” He notes that Warren Buffett recently bequeathed his billions to experts whom he deemed “ungodly bright,” frankly admitting he preferred to avoid being “too involved with a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be involved with and [having] to listen to more opinions than I would enjoy.”
Veteran donors may smile knowingly and acknowledge this sometimes-irksome duty. But we should recall, Schambra writes, that our exceptional civil society’s “messy, gritty process of deliberating, arguing, and compromising” is inseparable from our “conviction that all citizens are to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Contrast that understanding with the one held by some of the first large foundations, set up a century ago, which decided that an enlightened few should find and fix the “root causes” of social ills. This elevation of expertise led Carnegie and Rockefeller money, for example, to support the “science” of eugenics, whose proponents called for the government “to confine and sterilize the unfit” and thus prevent supposedly defective genes from causing more poverty and crime. Experts can err where common decency would not.
Better for private donors not to try to escape the duty of reflecting on how they can best provide legacies for their families and aid their fellow man. It is unwise to imagine that the burden of solving personal or social problems can be handed over to bureaucrats. The way is not easy, but the rewards can be great for givers and receivers alike, and thanks to Amy Kass and her authors, some light has been given to guide those hoping to give well and do good.
Contributing editor Scott Walter works for the Center for Union Facts and the Employment Policies Institute.