In September 2009, America lost three great leaders in philanthropy: Norman Borlaug, who died September 12; Irving Kristol, who died six days later; and Don Fisher, who passed away on September 27. Together, these three individuals represent the highest aspirations of philanthropy, and we salute them in this special section on “Adventurers in Philanthropy.”
Few pretensions are as cherished in the philanthropic world as the notion that giving can change the world. When John D. Rockefeller’s foundation opened its doors in 1913, its stated mission was to “improve the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” His contemporary descendant, Bill Gates, has more than a few times announced his ambition to cure the world’s 20 deadliest diseases. Along with a host of public and private “partners,” the Pew Charitable Trusts responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001, by launching a national initiative to achieve “the ambitious goal of ensuring that every three- and four-year-old has access to a quality pre-kindergarten education”—one of the more recent in a long line of such disappointing efforts.
Indeed, generation after generation of “philanthropoids” (as Frederick Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corporation from 1923 to 1941, once termed them) has been taught to distinguish the work they do as staff members for foundations or large nonprofit organizations from the activities of charities by emphasizing that they are committed to social change, not just helping the needy. Even “social entrepreneurs,” a new and supposedly more realistic group of philanthropists, often define their objective as not just giving someone a fish or even teaching them to fish, but rather revolutionizing the fishing industry.
Irving Kristol aimed squarely at this posture. Philanthropists who thought they could change the world, he said in a remarkable 1980 speech at the Council on Foundations, were succumbing to hubris, the Greek word for the “sin of pride.” They should strive instead to accomplish worthwhile, but less ambitious, feats, such as establishing schools, rather than trying to reconstruct school systems.
Kristol died on September 18, 2009, widely and justly acclaimed as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century and the intellectual godfather of neo-conservatism. Although his recommendations went largely unheeded in the world of elite grantmakers, several foundations that Kristol advised have had an impact far greater than he would have foretold.
“The Myth of the Third Sector”
Some might wonder why Irving Kristol was addressing the Council on Foundations in the first place. Since the meeting took place at a newly opened hotel adjacent to Irving, Texas, it might seem as though the Fates had conspired in the invitation. The actual reason was more prosaic. In 1980, the head of the Exxon Education Foundation, Robert L. Payton, chaired the program planning committee for the annual conference. Payton, who would go on to become the first director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, knew of Kristol’s emerging critique of philanthropy, and while he did not agree with it, he thought it worth taking seriously.
Kristol was at the time engaged in a debate about the future of American philanthropy. The 1960s had been an eventful decade for grantmakers. Most of it was taken up by a series of congressional investigations that culminated in provisions of the 1969 Tax Reform Act, generally thought to be punitive toward foundations. Among the reasons for all this attention was a growing inclination among foundations, led by the biggest and most powerful by far, the Ford Foundation, to become more actively involved in politics. Chastened by earlier investigations, foundations had wielded their influence warily, chiefly supporting research on issues of public importance or initiatives that they could undertake more or less with their own money, such as building schools in the South, researching vaccines for specific diseases, or establishing museums and libraries.
In philanthropy as in much else of American life, however, the 1960s challenged older patterns. For foundations, this meant that efforts to change public policy, empower minorities, and foster judicial activism, among other causes, became more attractive. They began to view themselves as a “third sector,” independent of both business and government. (As Kristol admonished his audience, “You’re not above the private sector, by God, you’re in it.”) An influx of staff drawn from an increasingly radicalized academia buttressed this stance. When the Council on Foundations moved its headquarters from America’s business center, New York, to its political center, Washington, in 1979, it seemed to reflect the change in self-perception.
Kristol recognized this change and understood its significance. Foundations, he knew, were essentially liberal institutions in the sense that they were dedicated to the idea of continually reforming—if not perfecting—society, without much appreciation of the limitations and risks of doing so. Thanks to their endowments, they were largely unconstrained by market discipline or electoral realities. Moreover, the eminent individuals who sat on foundations’ boards were not often disposed to direct their staffs. Thus, by aligning themselves with a more activist government and without meaningful accountability for their actions, foundations were becoming a stronghold for a “new class” of intellectuals and other professionals, hostile to the virtues and practices on which democracy, capitalism, and, not least of all, philanthropy itself depended.
In his writings and speeches, Kristol called attention to these developments. He did not echo Milton Friedman in urging corporations and foundations to dispense with their grand social ambitions. Kristol instead encouraged them to become more sophisticated in their giving, using their philanthropic dollars strategically. By doing so, he argued, they would advance their own interests and the interests of capitalism—an economic system Kristol semi-celebrated in his 1978 book, Two Cheers for Capitalism.
Not least, he cultivated a small network of “dissident” foundations and their staffs, which ultimately led to the establishment of the organization now known as The Philanthropy Roundtable (which I directed under the auspices of the Institute for Educational Affairs in the 1980s). The Roundtable was meant to do on a broader scale what Kristol was doing almost by himself.
Kristol’s cautions about the need to avoid philanthropic hubris and his robust argument for foundations’ place in the “private sector” were not what most of his audience at the Council on Foundations wanted to hear. To the contrary, the big foundations and their acolytes were still intent on changing the world.
Thus the surprise when, many years later, organizations and writers on the Left began examining the work of the grantmakers with which Kristol had been associated and concluded they had been far more effective than many of the big foundations in his Council on Foundations audience. Although this assessment was undoubtedly partly self-serving, designed to pry more money from sympathetic donors, it also acknowledged the value of long-term assistance to a relatively small number of institutions, including think tanks, magazines, books, and leadership development programs.
This approach was sometimes difficult for Kristol’s own allies to accept. Early in my own tenure as a “philanthropoid,” I put together—with Kristol’s considerable assistance—a group of thoughtful people to discuss with key members of the foundation’s board what could be done about the culture and, in particular, its apparent hostility toward corporations. The evening was stimulating, but by the end, my chairman, a can-do businessman, pressed for a tidy conclusion: What one or two initiatives could a medium-sized grantmaker support that would produce real change?
The problem, a guest replied, was that American society was too large and varied for even well-funded efforts to make a significant impact. There are no levers that can automatically change the cultural world—a circumstance that is, on balance, a good thing. This was not exactly the answer the chairman was looking for, but even so, there followed a number of grants that helped to launch a variety of modest efforts that, taken together, have made valuable contributions over the years.
The lesson of this episode, and at the heart of Irving Kristol’s thinking about philanthropy, is that in grantmaking, money is always the most plentiful resource. In shorter supply are good ideas about what to do with it and the talented people who can use it effectively. A $1 billion endowment is not large enough to change the world, but a $1 million gift, well spent, can make a big difference. Many of the problems facing philanthropy today stem from confusing assets with ambition, size with scope. Many of philanthropy’s successes have come from thinking more modestly, supporting smaller lights that can cast large shadows.
“If you’re so smart,” Jewish grandmothers have been known to ask their over-educated (and self-important) grandchildren, “why aren’t you rich?” Among philanthropoids, the temptation is always to think that because they are surrounded by so much wealth, they must be smart. This is the sin of pride—and, as Irving Kristol pointed out a generation ago, it is a barrier not only to changing the world but to making even modest improvements.
There is much wisdom in Jewish grandmothers. And in Jewish godfathers.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University. This article is derived from a lecture he gave at the Hudson Institute in December 2009 on “The Problem of Doing Good: Irving Kristol’s Philanthropy.”