Bill Clinton once lamented that foreign policy was so much easier during the Cold War, back when things were “simpler” and there was a “consensus” with which everyone agreed. While those who remember that period a little differently might be entitled to an incredulous “Really?” (or at least a “Who’s this we?”), the point is that there are some ideas that, when their time finally comes, so quickly and thoroughly infuse the conventional wisdom that it becomes hard to remember when they were considered outré.
That seems to be the case now with faith-based charities. Whatever winds up happening with President Bush’s faith-based initiative—indeed, even if no legislation is passed and not a dollar of federal money is redirected into charitable coffers—the idea that faith-based charities are effective and valuable now seems to have been pretty much absorbed by most serious people. It wasn’t always that way—not even recently. During the homelessness “crisis” of the 1980s, private charities were often considered at best a halfway step, at worst an impediment to the massive governmental action that was “necessary” to solve the problem. Ditto for other social problems (housing, drug addiction, failing education) that have erupted in recent decades.
But now that we are willing to agree that faith-based organizations and other private charities are an important part of civic renewal—oh heck, let’s just say it: we’re all civil societarians now—the question has become how we best use these charitable assets.
That’s where Ryan Streeter comes in. A Hudson Institute researcher who used to work for Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Streeter was named a “Next Generation Leadership Fellow” by the Rockefeller Foundation last year. He argues in Transforming Charity that it is time to adopt a more mature, serious, and hard-headed approach to philanthropy. Charitable efforts should be measured by the results they produce, rather than the warm, fuzzy feelings they generate.
According to Streeter, there is a “new intentionality” to the use of charitable dollars. Donors should—and increasingly do—demand specific results from their gifts. It is no longer enough just to mean well. He makes a critical distinction between “intention-based” charity, where meaning well and feeling good about one’s generosity are suitable ends in themselves, and a new, more robust “results-based” charity that seeks to change permanently the status, circumstance, and perhaps even soul of the recipient. The goal of charitable giving should be the fostering of self-reliance; successful giving should extinguish charitable need.
To Streeter, “results are more important than worthy causes, and one way to produce results is to go after the causes of problems rather than their immediate effects.”
Which all sounds nice (as long as you can get past an appeal to address what sound like “root causes” without wincing), but requires fleshing out, which is what this book provides. Streeter’s approach is holistic. Faith-based organizations should not be “the sole caregiver” for the poor and the left-behind (though look how far and fast this debate has come that the author feels compelled to say that!). There are vital, indispensable roles for government and the business sector to play as well. Indeed, as Streeter emphasizes, the whole system only works when these three different, though overlapping, sectors cooperate. His “multi-sector strategy” for civic renewal requires each sector to respect the roles played by the others.
Things get interesting in the areas where the three spheres overlap. Thus, for example, “charitable choice” falls between “government” and “charity.” And in the space between “business” and “charity” you find organizations like the Jobs Partnership of Raleigh, North Carolina (featured in Philanthropy’s “Holiday Giving Guide,” November-December 1999). A local businessman, needing more skilled labor, teamed up with a consortium of local ministers to create a job training program that had a strong moral and practical instruction component. The bottom-line result was more than a corporate handout—it was a business success as well as a charitable success. As Streeter notes, while corporate philanthropy is an old concept, the idea of using it to promote self-reliance is oddly new. (He also acknowledges the enduringly perverse fact that in some cases, “foundations established by corporate entrepreneurs have favored philanthropic initiatives that fly in the face of market principles.”)
Building a civic infrastructure requires cultivating an appreciation for those organizations inhabiting the interstices: faith-based organizations, community development corporations, and community and nonprofit partnerships. It is in the frisson of the sectors’ overlap that these intermediaries build social and economic ties and keep communities together. Over-reliance on one sector leads to alienation and isolation: “one of the travesties of the welfare state that emerged in the 1960s is the virtual quarantine of the poor,” Streeter writes, trapping them with civically unhealthy incentives in public housing and on the public dole.
Now that we all agree on the efficacy of faith-based organizations and other expressions of private philanthropy in changing lives and generating civic renewal, it’s time to start measuring their tangible results and implementing their successes in earnest. Transforming Charity is a helpful start.
Tom Riley is associate editor of Philanthropy.