Some 76 years ago, Edward Alsworth Ross, a famous Progressive theorist and University of Wisconsin sociologist, captured the view of his time in describing the role of private foundations, writing:
Here is the natural and logical relation of philanthropy to social reform. It is the function of private philanthropy to pioneer, to experiment, to try out new things and new methods, and just as soon as it has found the right way . . . the time has come for the community [by which Ross meant the government] to take over the function.
It is this formula that philanthropy has followed for much of this century. It serves its highest function, in this view, not when it meets an immediate need in a concrete way, but rather when it tests out some novel social program, usually based on the new sciences of society developed by Ross and other progressives, with the understanding that government would soon afterward pick up the program and “take it to scale.”
Philanthropists would now no longer feed the hungry—they would battle hunger. There would be little to say about the poor as human persons—but there would be endless discussion of the causes of poverty. Social scientists do not deal with a broken man or woman—they repair broken systems.
But what happens when the 20th century, the century of the elites, is over? What happens when the people of the world decide that government cannot do it all? Internationally, the ultimate surviving expression of government as the only legitimate social institution—international socialism—is so suddenly and quietly undone that it appears to have evaporated.
Here at home, a national health care proposal goes down in flames and the President, himself the leader of the party of big government, declares that “the era of big government is over.” Locally, mothers and fathers are increasingly determined to assert their responsibility for their children as more authoritative than the responsibility of government school administrators.
What happens to philanthropy when citizens turn to one another rather than centralized government? After decades of proudly being the pathfinder for government programs, what if Washington is no longer available to “take to scale” the beloved experiments of philanthropy?
At the Bradley Foundation, we had been asking ourselves these questions over the past several years and have been inviting the larger philanthropic community to ponder them along with us. But in this age of skepticism—surrounded as we are by the ruins of great social experiments urged upon us by the experts and funded lavishly by government and philanthropy alike—where were we now to look for advice?
As it turns out, while we philanthropists had begun to despair over the supposed intractability of our social problems, a handful of courageous and innovative grassroots leaders in our nation’s bleakest neighborhoods had nonetheless gone ahead and proven them to be tractable—one individual, one neighborhood, one community at a time.
While we foundations had been pondering the lack of minority business development, Bill Lock had for years been successfully incubating small, inner-city businesses at Community Enterprises of Greater Milwaukee on Teutonia Avenue.
While we wondered what to do about the ravages of drug addiction, Pastor Juan Rivera in San Antonio was busy restoring hundreds of addicts to physical and spiritual wholeness at Victory Fellowship.
While we sat in the ruins of our urban redevelopment schemes, Pastor Henry Delaney was quietly rehabilitating whole blocks at a time through the St. Paul C.M.E. Church in inner-city Savannah.
While we threw up our hands at the epidemic of teen pregnancy, Elayne Bennett was successfully persuading young women that motherhood is best postponed until other life goals are met through her Best Friends program.
While we debated endlessly about the causes and cures of homelessness, Father Jerry Hill was reclaiming homeless men and women every day at Dallas’s Austin Street Shelter.
While we fretted about the social strains introduced by immigration, Sister Jennie Lechtenberg was creating fully literate, English-speaking American citizens in largely Hispanic East Los Angeles at Puente Learning Center.
For all the proven skill and success of these grassroots leaders, however, the tragic fact was that we philanthropists have largely ignored them. We’ve never asked them how they’ve succeeded where we’ve so often failed. Nor have we even offered them the financial support they so urgently need and so richly deserve.
After all, they don’t employ impressive staffs of credentialed experts. They often rely on volunteers whose chief qualification may be that they themselves have only recently overcome the problems they’re now helping others to face. They face the poor man or woman directly in front of them—as a human person whose face they know and whose name they speak—rather than mobilizing coalitions against the abstract and anonymous “causes” of poverty.
Typically, they place their faith in God rather than social science, even when a single utterance of the G-word renders them intolerable to government—and also to many large foundations whose executives have forgotten, after years of scouting for projects to hand off to government, that it is allowed in America to have dealings with shameless, conspicuous believers.
These are precisely the “experts”—credentialed by success in the concrete, practical, revitalization of civil society—who we wanted to bring to the table, as we asked them to advise our National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Consistent with our view of the power of ideas, we brought them together with established thinkers in the world of public policy to complement or complete one another’s perspectives.
This Commission—to which we soon wished we had given a shorter name than the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal—was properly impressed by the generosity of the American people, donors of some $135 billion and untold hours of volunteer time in 1998 alone. The bad news, however, was the Commission’s primary finding that philanthropy today suffers from an effectiveness gap whereby the good intentions of Americans are simply not matched by the impact of their giving on people in need.
The Commission found that the philanthropy that generates the most public attention is typically large gifts to well-established national charities, United Way for example, from famous foundations like Ford and MacArthur or celebrated individuals like George Soros, Bill Gates, or Ted Turner. But the real fuel powering American giving, as the Commission discovered, is the tens of millions of lower-visibility charitable acts performed not only by those individuals working in the philanthropic and business sectors, but each and every one of us, regardless of our occupations and socio-economic status.
Those smaller gifts generally get zero public attention, while Big Deal gifts are celebrated nationally. A billion dollars to the U.N.—perhaps the only organization in existence that could consume that amount at one sitting—guarantees Page One coverage. But the uncovered story that belongs on Page One is that the unprecedented personal giving of our citizens bespeaks a people serious and sincere about helping the needy. Yet, aside from the satisfaction of good intentions, these citizens are being shortchanged.
The Commission’s report, “Giving Better, Giving Smarter: Renewing Philanthropy in America,” points to the astounding magnanimity of our people as “America’s secret weapon in dealing with our most urgent social needs,” but concludes that far too much of our national generosity is—if not exactly wasted—then “haphazard, misdirected, and misspent.”
The report goes on to provide painful examples of “haphazard, misdirected, and misspent” charity, including programs that if they were not charitable—with their failures forgiven on the basis of “good intentions”—might otherwise be described as fraud.
These are the lessons of a century of giving. And it is particularly important to focus on them today, for we are entering a new and unprecedented era of giving marked by the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in our nation’s history and a boom in new wealth creation by risk-taking entrepreneurs.
A confluence of trends has resulted in an era of tremendous opportunity for a new kind of American philanthropist often referred to as the “civic entrepreneur.” This is a person who is prepared to be as exacting in his or her giving as in other domains of life. Civic entrepreneurs seek out the organizations that are most effective in revitalizing their communities, focusing not on money raised, intentions voiced, or services offered, but on what happens in the real world. They also look for “enlightened recipients” who are as tough-minded and independent as their donors.
America’s growing—perhaps long overdue—attitude toward government specifically rejects the 20th century model of one great and central institution. This is not a rejection of government as a valid institution. Rather it is a refined quest for government that is competent at the many and extremely important things government can do, but one that has learned the lessons of history, is cautious in the application of its enormous power, and understands its place among—but not above—the many valid institutions of our society.
The new approach to giving recommended by the Commission is not intended to replicate or imitate what government does. It has a distinctive and vital mission far beyond the reach, or proper role, of mere government. What philanthropy and volunteerism do most effectively, by way of improving the condition of the poor and strengthening our communities, is profoundly different from what government does. Charity can create incentives, call for personal accountability, and offer the moral leadership that government programs cannot provide.
In reviewing the Commission report, I see as its most crucial “lesson for the future,” its message that events have conspired to set aside a moment in history for private charity. For as we enter a new millennium, we do so with the following assets:
· A generous people disposed to sharing and spreading wealth and enriched for their industry and innovation with more wealth than ever to share and spread;
· A dawning understanding of government as a key component—but not the one and only valid institution—for solving problems of people with needs that exceed the can-do range of bureaucrats; and,
· A restoration of civil institutions, whose renewed authority is no longer jealously feared by government, reawakening the great American tradition of community that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when our nation was young.
These assets could be wasted if American philanthropy cannot make the transition from building huge bureaucracies to supporting the efforts of families, churches, neighborhoods, and communities to reassert responsibility for themselves.
The first response of the largest mainline philanthropies to such challenges as the Commission report has laid down has not been pleasant. They maintain that if people are unwisely reluctant to let government do it all, it will be the purpose of private charity to “fill gaps” left by shifts in government spending.
As is so often the case, this reaction suggests that the most obdurate vice of contemporary philanthropy is pride.
To weigh against that vice, I propose a virtue—and a cardinal one at that—hope.
Hope may seem more a necessity than a virtue as we enter a new millennium, but in the past century of giving we saw hope in the eyes of those whose gifts were instrumental in improving the human condition. In the eyes of those whose gifts have failed, the only hope we have seen is a plea for the government to smile on their pet project and “take it to scale.”
Michael S. Joyce is president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee and vice chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable. This is the second of two articles examining the virtues and vices of contemporary philanthropy.