In this extract from an essay reprinted in Giving Well, Doing Good, scholar of philanthropy William Schambra warns against turning over national problem solving to distant experts and elites.
The central premise of twentieth-century philanthropy is that the “ungodly bright” (to use Warren Buffet’s term) are somehow better equipped to solve society’s problems than are everyday citizens. The notion that citizens themselves could and should play a central role in solving their own problems is, of course, reflected in Alexis de Tocqueville’s understanding of American democracy.
Tocquevillian or civic renewal philanthropy would reach out quietly but actively into the communities it wishes to assist, harvesting “street wisdom” about which groups genuinely capture a community’s self-understanding of its problems. Such groups will more than likely have duct tape on their industrial carpeting and water stains on their ceilings. They will not be able to draft clever, eye-catching fundraising brochures or grant proposals. They will not have sophisticated accounting systems, or be able to lay out a schedule of measurable outcomes. They will not speak the language of the social sciences, but more often than not, the language of sin and spiritual redemption. They will not be staffed by well-paid credentialed experts, but rather by volunteers whose chief credential is that they themselves have managed to overcome the problem they are now helping others to confront. No matter what the group’s formal charter states, it will minister to whatever needs present themselves at the door, even if it means being accused of inefficiency or mission drift. For each person is treated not as an inadequately self-aware bundle of pathologies, but rather as a unique individual, a citizen possessed of a soul, demanding a respectful, humane response to the entire person.
This approach turns completely on its head the still-entrenched orthodoxy of progressive philanthropy. Indeed, it looks suspiciously like charity—the antiquated, discredited approach which nonetheless honored and ministered personally to the individual before it. Charity does indeed deal with “mere symptoms” because they are what people themselves consider important, rather than with root causes visible only to experts who can “see through” the client. Because civic renewal philanthropy tackles social problems individual by individual, neighborhood by neighborhood, and because it relies on and entrusts ordinary, public-spirited citizens, familiar with the communities of which they are a part, to lead the way—to identify and resolve their own problems in their own way—this approach will not appeal to the ungodly bright.
It is hardly surprising that the immensely wealthy today should find appealing the century-old vision of putting massive funding into cutting-edge technology in order to deliver the decisive, “knock-out punch” to some vexing social problem. Perhaps a handful, however, will come to appreciate the lessons of the past century, that there are no knock-outs in the effort to improve society, and the search for them can readily take ugly turns. By funding more concrete, immediate, community-based efforts of the sort described by Tocqueville, however, it would be possible to make modest headway against social ills. It would also contribute to a much loftier purpose, the revival of civic engagement and democratic self-governance in America, perhaps thereby helping to insure the survival of our democratic republic. But to appreciate the importance of that goal, it is necessary to transcend the narrow, scientific knowledge of the ungodly bright. It requires instead a kind of prudence or wisdom that aims at an attainable good, while accepting and working with, rather than trying to see through the bewildering variety of human needs. It thus fully respects and helps to preserve democratic citizenship and human dignity. This would be the philanthropy, not of the ungodly bright, but rather of the godly wise.