This was originally published in RealClearPolitics, and draws from The Almanac of American Philanthropy.
It’s an article of faith in some quarters today that government is the only reliable guarantor of human rights. This, however, overlooks the powerful role of privately funded civil society in protecting individuals. It unwisely and unsafely ignores generations of cautionary examples from American life.
Take the civil rights movement—a favorite example of advocates who would have you believe that “social justice” arrives only if government drives it. Back in 1704—when 1,500 African-Americans in New York City were held as slaves with full government sanction, and educating them was forbidden—private donors set up schools to quietly instruct hundreds of Manhattan slaves. By the 1830s, philanthropists like Arthur Tappan were paying for African-Americans to go to college even as state laws continued to make it a crime to teach a slave to write. Less than two years after the bullets of the Civil War stopped flying, businessman George Peabody was distributing millions of his own dollars across the South to train teachers and set up schools without racial consideration so that the freed slaves and other illiterates could get learning—despite the antipathy of many state officials for that cause. In 1891, philanthropist Katharine Drexel gave her entire fortune to create a new religious order devoted to assisting blacks and Indians. She established 50 schools for African-Americans, 145 missions and 12 schools for Native Americans, and Xavier University in New Orleans as a black college. In these same years, governments at all levels were doing little more than breaking promises to Native Americans and neglecting African-Americans.
As the 20th century opened, public authorities were enforcing Jim Crow laws that stunted the progress of blacks. But John Rockefeller (pictured) was pouring money into primary education for African-Americans. Then he boosted up 1,600 new high schools for blacks and poor whites. He put hundreds of millions of dollars from his personal fortune into these ventures, while simultaneously spending millions more to improve the health of poor blacks and whites.
Hordes of private givers followed the leads of Tappan and Peabody and Rockefeller. There was the Anna Jeanes’ Negro Rural Schools Fund, the Phelps Stokes Fund, the Virginia Randolph Fund, the John Slater Fund, and many others. Large sums of personal support were channeled into improving the education and social status of African-Americans at a time when they had few friends in officialdom.
The biggest boost came from philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Starting in 1912 he began to pay for schoolhouses in hundreds of counties where black education was being ignored. In less than 20 years, the Rosenwald program erected 4,977 rural schools and 380 companion community buildings in most of America’s locales with a substantial black population. At the time of Rosenwald’s death in 1932, the institutions he built were educating fully 27 percent of all African-American children in our country.
Many youngsters were turned into productive citizens by these philanthropic projects. Absent these private efforts, racial improvement and reconciliation in our country would have been delayed by generations. Government not only had little to do with this philanthropic uplift—many administrative arms resisted it.
A curmudgeon might say, “Well, that’s nice, but it’s ancient history. Today, public officials lead all necessary social change.” That is gravely mistaken.
Guess where America’s most segregated and inadequate state-run schools are located at present, according to researchers? All in northern cities with activist governments: Detroit, New York, Newark, Chicago, and Philadelphia. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the state with the country’s most segregated schools today is New York—on account of the large proportion of campuses in New York City that are almost all black or Hispanic.
Government-operated schools in New York drip with rhetoric about aiding the disadvantaged, but it is private philanthropy that is shaking up the city’s complacently bad educational establishment today. Donors are nourishing thousands of seats in charter schools and Catholic schools that prove impressive results can be seen in poor minority children if given better instruction. Close to 200,000 needy children in New York City now attend philanthropically aided schools, with many more on waiting lists, and investigators from Stanford and elsewhere find that these students are receiving significantly better educations than counterparts in conventional government-run schools, in some cases outscoring comfortable suburban academies in annual testing. Yet private donors and charter-school operators must continually battle resistance from reactionary progressives in city hall and the city council.
For another example of the underappreciated role of private giving in protecting vulnerable populations, consider efforts against genocide. Conventional wisdom again says nothing helpful can happen in this area except under government banners. But that’s not been our history. When the U.S. ambassador to Turkey discovered that Ottomans were starving and killing Jews in Palestine during World War I, his urgent telegram went to American philanthropist Jacob Schiff. A fundraising committee collected hundreds of millions of dollars, given by 3 million donors, saving many thousands of Jews.
They weren’t the only ones who needed saving. At that same time, Muslims were carrying out a jihad against Armenian Christians that ultimately took 1.5 million lives. The U.S. government did little, but everyday Americans, missionaries, church members, and philanthropists sprang into action to both spare lives immediately and then sustain the Armenians dislocated by the genocide. Nearly 1,000 Americans volunteered to go to the region to build orphanages and help refugees. They assumed responsibility for 130,000 motherless and fatherless children, and rescued more than a million adults.
As with our civil-rights example, philanthropy protecting endangered people overseas in the face of public-sector failures is not just a story in the past tense. In 1993, all Western governments were pathetically slow and inadequate in their response to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia that killed tens of thousands. The most consequential actor by far was philanthropist George Soros—who used $50 million of his own money to insert a highly effective relief team into the city of Sarajevo while it was under siege, re-establishing gas and electric service during the bitter winter, setting up an alternate water supply, and bringing in desperately needed supplies. It has been estimated that Soros’s gift saved more lives than the efforts of all national governments plus the United Nations combined.
In our country, private giving is a kind of alternate system of social action. For centuries, right up to the present moment, it has protected groups and viewpoints and styles of behavior that may be out of sympathy or fashion. Those who would tamper with the independence of philanthropy put those valuable protections, and their beneficiaries, in danger.
Karl Zinsmeister is vice president at The Philanthropy Roundtable.