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How Private Givers Can Rescue America in an Era of Political Frustration

Our political process is parched, harsh, and unproductive. Social disorders are increasing. It seems that life is not getting better. More than two thirds of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

Well guess what?

We aren’t the first to face this…

Indeed, there have been many such periods in American history.

A key tussle in the Presidential election of 1828 was whose wife was more shameful: Mrs. Jackson or Mrs. Adams. During Jackson’s inauguration, observers were amazed at the number of men who ended up with bloody noses. At the White House reception, the crowd broke much of the official china and glassware while pawing their way to the whiskey punch and cake. To avoid being crushed by the mob, the new President had to climb out a ground-floor window. Destruction of the mansion was relieved only when stewards placed tubs of liquor on the front lawn to draw people outside.

There were many violent pastimes in those days, and fighting was common. The two main categories of street disorders were drunken brawls and lynching riots. The lynchers included philanthropists among their targets (note the attacks on the Tappans in my case study on abolition). And the drinkers guzzled three to four times as much alcohol per capita as today’s consumption (see temperance case study). All of this grog yielded varieties of anarchy we can only begin to fathom, from family abuse to chronic workplace shutdowns due to worker absenteeism.

Yet even in the midst of disheartening social turmoil and dysfunctional politics, good citizens in America never stopped fixing and refining our society. When it was almost impossible to make progress through government, men and women poured their energy and money into repairing our culture in other ways: through charity, voluntary associations, mass movements, business innovations, and grassroots action.

And I don’t just mean clubs that bought flagpoles for the town square. Many of the most consequential reforms accomplished in America—finding inventive fixes to problems that cast dark shadows over our future, problems that had stumped all levels of government—were the products of direct citizen action. The four case studies attached to this essay show in detail how thousands of spontaneous private efforts took the raw edges off nineteenth-century America and set our nation up for modern success. It was not political activity but rather private organizing that:

  • Brought literacy to the half of our democracy locked in ignorance.
  • Moderated our terrible national drinking problem.
  • Turned Americans against the stain of slavery.
  • Tamed the cultural fractures, crime, and community breakdown produced by massive foreign immigration, industrialization, and dislocation of small-town residents into big cities.
  • Elevated individual character through religious revival and self-improvement crusades that defined what we now think of as the quintessential American values.

You will also read in this essay about more recent civil organizing that continues to solve or soften our most distressing contemporary problems—often in sectors where government officials have repeatedly swung and missed.

It’s a reality that U.S. politics is likely to be a source of frustration for some years to come. But even if elections remain a cruel blood sport, and government agencies continue to be ineffective at addressing the key maladies that afflict us, and Washington, D.C., remains frozen tundra for people who want to improve America, there is no reason to be depressed, to abandon public life, to doubt our nation’s ability to make progress. There are many paths to progress other than those that run along the Potomac, many precedents and prior triumphs we can copy, many productive places where good citizens can invest themselves in making America finer.

So there is no reason to jump on the bandwagon and practice politics as full-blown warfare on fellow citizens, to retreat into private affairs, into moneymaking alone, into simply maximizing outcomes for our own families or our own communities. While private success is the foundation for all public service, withdrawing into parochial concerns is never good for a nation.

If you are a successful, public-spirited American disappointed by today’s political possibilities, you should consider pouring yourself into savvy philanthropy and working the levers of civil society to solve gnawing problems. Get out there and give money, volunteer elbow grease, and invest talent in fixing the problems that afflict us as a people. This can be done in many ways, in almost any sector of society, in every one of our communities. And successful small efforts are as important as big ones. The key is simply to succeed. To change. To educate. To build human competence and end sadness. To triumph over illness and poverty and antisocial behavior and false values. There are literally millions of wide-open fields yawning for leaders.

This kind of organizing and acting and spending for high purposes—entirely outside of the political process—has happened many times before in our country, including in eras when the national prospects were considerably bleaker than they are now. Millions of patriotic Americans have found effective and satisfying ways other than politics to move culture and opinion and social practice. It can happen again.

Been there, done that

Here’s a picture for you: Demagogues and pundits have abandoned serious discussion of principles and stooped to slanders, falsehood, trickery, and the “scalping and roasting alive” of opponents. These cheap tricks have aroused “low passions” among the public, and “wild, blind reckless partisanship” is overtaking reason and individual judgment. Scholars say no other era was more politically fractured and obsessed with ideology.

Many Americans are shocked by the crudeness of public discourse, and by unprecedented eruptions of vulgarity in daily life. Substance abuse is on the rise, particularly among the working class, which is thought to be under serious stress due to national economic dislocations. There is alarm over the levels of waste and fraud taking place in government, at the national as well as state and local levels. Racial antagonism and scapegoating have resulted in violence and street clashes with authorities in places stretching from Ohio to New York to Missouri, plunging some cities into what observers call “mobocracy.”

Seem familiar? What you have just read is a description, from mournful contemporary reports, of Jacksonian America. In the first half of the 1800s, many people felt there was something going profoundly wrong in the U.S. Millions pined for thoroughgoing reform.

One impressive young attorney warned a Midwestern audience in 1838 that “There is something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment.” That young lawyer was named Abraham Lincoln.

Our country was groping blindly, roughly, raggedly to figure out how to function as the world’s first mass democracy. A remarkably talented, principled, and comparatively selfless group of political leaders had risen up to lead our nation to independence, but the Washingtons and Madisons had now passed on, and we were settling in for the long slog. A brand new party system—including the idea that winners of elections earned the right to stuff the government with their cronies, and often their pockets with silver—was taking hold at every level of politics, from the national capital to Tammany Hall. This was an era of fraud, embezzlement, and self-enrichment at the public trough.

Elections turned into circuses. Votes were openly traded for booze, jobs, or favors. One South Carolinian observed that “civilization” retreats more in one month before an election than it can advance in six months afterward. A Presidential election was “a national calamity” in its effects on public morals.

It’s a reality that U.S. politics is likely to be a source of frustration for some years to come. But even if Washington, D.C., remains frozen tundra for people who want to improve America, there is no reason to doubt our nation’s ability to make progress.

Sensitive citizens decried “the evils of party spirit” that tore through our politics. Many retreated to quixotic alternatives like the Antimasonic Party or the Liberty Party. If you think we live in a partisan world now, consider this description by a Tennessean of U.S. life in the mid-1800s: “The hotels, the stores, and even the shops were regarded as Whig or Democratic, and thus patronized by the parties. There was scarcely any such thing as neutrality. Almost every one—high or low, rich or poor, black or white—was arranged on one side or the other.”

Parts of our culture other than politics also frequently frayed and split—geographic regions, religious denominations, organs of journalism, central-bank vs. no-bank businessmen. Ethnicity and social class were sore points as millions of new immigrants started to flood into the U.S., bringing patterns of religious practice, family structure, alcohol use, work, and home life that were unfamiliar and often unwelcome. This was exacerbated by the surge of rural men and women pulled out of small towns by industrialization and urbanism. Farm boys “poured into the city to mingle with Irish immigrants, all looking for work and mostly finding crime, slums, whiskey, and poverty,” comments one historian.

Harsh schisms separated Americans. Baleful influences were corrupting the character of individual citizens. And our government entities were not effective at turning any of this around.

The exhaustion of politics

These are not the kinds of problems that politics and policy changes can cure. In many of these cases, politics was the cause of the illness. So savvy cultural leaders, businessmen, preachers, and even wise government officials increasingly turned away from policies and government programs and elections as panaceas, and started looking for other ways to fix what ailed America. It became clear that the European tradition of using politics to restrain and control anarchic lower classes, which the Federalists and Democrats had also dabbled with early in the life of our nation, was not viable in America.

Soon “it was no longer as fashionable as it had been for businessmen to enter the sometimes dirty game of politics,” writes historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Instead, many of them put their patriotic energies and money behind private organizations created to lift up fellow citizens. Education, moral striving, and self-improvement became the watchwords, and “the associative principle was approached with a new intensity.” An explosion of groups burst forth to teach people how to read, what to feed a baby, means of saving money, how to understand the Bible, ways to keep a house sanitary, reasons to avoid alcohol and tobacco, how to find a job, when to discipline children, where to donate to others less well-off than you, and myriad other socially valuable behaviors.

The society that our founders aimed to create was one that enshrined both freedom and goodness, notes author Richard Cornuelle:

We wanted, from the beginning, a free society, free in the sense that every man was his own supervisor and the architect of his own ambitions…. We wanted as well, with equal fervor, a good society—a humane, responsible society in which helping hands reached out to people in honest distress, in which common needs were met…. We created a much wider variety of new institutions for this purpose than we built to insure political freedom. As a frontier people, accustomed to interdependence, we developed a genius for solving common problems. People joined together in bewildering combinations to found schools, churches, opera houses, co-ops, hospitals, to build bridges and canals, to help the poor. To see a need was, more often than not, to promote a scheme to meet it better than had ever been done before.

This dual devotion to liberty and goodness defined the American project and allowed it to succeed brilliantly. It needs to be kept in mind, though, that there were no other democracies around for early Americans to learn from. We had to figure out how to make rule-by-the-ordinary work, and most Americans felt the fragility of our experiment—and the need to constantly repeat the processes of education, moral striving, and societal and self improvement.

Inner reform redeems culture

While the health of a radically self-governing country like ours depends upon the moral decency and wisdom of rank-and-file residents, the state must rely on other parts of society—families, churches, charities and organs of philanthropy—to build up that inner goodness. Recognizing this paradox, and the potential danger to our republic, generations of American leaders poured themselves into bolstering and building the virtue-creating institutions of civil society. They did this with dual goals in sight: They wanted to elevate individual character, and to gentle some of the cruder aspects of our collective culture. “From individual regeneration and social stability would come national progress,” is how one observer put it.

It was much easier to do this during periods of religious revival. Our First Great Awakening, rippling through what were still colonies, cemented in American minds the idea that every person is a sovereign being with full status before God. That set the stage for our political revolution based on the proposition that “All men are created equal.”

What happens in our hearts, in our families, and in our interactions with our direct neighbors is far more important in shaping our future prospects (and the collective course of our nation) than most of what unfolds in our politics, our policies, or our laws.

What historians call America’s Second Great Awakening rose and peaked during the first half of the nineteenth century. It brought mass understanding that each person is responsible for perfecting his soul as much as possible, and for lifting up his neighbor whenever he is able. In this way the Second Great Awakening paved the way for a moral revolution as profound as our political revolution—one that accomplished tremendous things like ending slavery, universalizing literacy, and cementing across our middle class what we now think of as the classic American virtues. Qualities like neighborliness, honesty, hard work, self-discipline, thrift, and sobriety were nowhere near omnipresent in Jacksonian America. The fact that they are admired as norms today is a product of the evangelical campaigns that roared across America starting in the early 1800s.

The men and women who slayed demon rum, broke slaves’ shackles, cleaned up the tenements, taught illiterate European peasants and freed blacks to read, and rooted the golden rule in American breasts did so by translating religious commitment into social improvement. Theirs is a fascinating tale, with relevance in many places to our contemporary circumstances. Be sure to read the case studies on the Second Great Awakening and on the remarkable Sunday Schooling movement that transformed America in so many ways.

There is no mistaking the fact that these evangelical reformers were direct heirs of our Puritan tradition. One of the philanthropic heroes of the Second Great Awakening (and a recurring figure in the case studies) was Lewis Tappan. A letter sent by his mother-in-law to his wife provides a representative, and amusing, glimpse of the strong internal restraint that the Protestant ethic nurtured within Americans during this era. These motherly instructions were offered to the not-yet-married daughter while she was visiting a friend in a nearby city:

  • Be cautious of speaking about any person. (This is good Christian counsel discouraging gossip.)
  • Put your trust where it can never be disappointed. (For those of you who didn’t have evangelical mothers—this is code.)
  • Don’t go out in the evening. (Blatant code.)
  • Keep near your friend Miss Smith. (More strong code.)
  • Write me immediately if you have been dancing. (Foundational dogma of both the Methodist and Baptist churches.)

The social reformers of our Second Great Awakening firmly believed that self-discipline is the key to success, happiness, and good citizenship. What happens in our hearts, in our families, and in our interactions with our neighbors, they insisted, is far more important in shaping our future prospects (and the collective course of our nation) than most of what happens in politics, policy, or law.

That perspective continues to have strong relevance. In their book Good Faith, authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons suggest that in 2016 America “we are engaged in a struggle over the human imagination.” On one side is a view that says self-fulfillment and personal pleasure are what matter. You only live once. Grab as many good feelings as you can. On the other side is an ancient view that says, actually, the point of life is to redeem, restore, and continually re-create yourself into an ever-higher state (even when that’s unpleasurable) while simultaneously pulling along as many other human beings as you can. We need to refine our own souls, love others, and build a better culture.

pThat latter view was the ethic that made America both a free society and a good society during our first century after independence. Facing problems similar to today’s but far more widespread, our American predecessors managed to dramatically transform our culture within one generation. Many astonishing details are provided in the case studies later in this book.

These predecessors used all the tools of civil society and grassroots action: New technologies enabled persuasion via mass communication. Music and novels and other elements of popular culture were deployed to grab people’s hearts. Hundreds of thousands of passionate young-adult volunteers were recruited; they developed potent role-modeling and mentoring relationships with needy children just a decade or two younger, inspiring them to change their lives. Powerful legal interventions established new precedents in the courts. Schools, churches, and fraternal clubs were created in barren spots. Reporters were cleverly wooed. Good citizenship, neighborliness, and national unity were cultivated in myriad ways. New concepts of work, leisure, and self-improvement were fostered, turning Americans into constant tinkerers and re-inventors—not just of machinery, but of their own souls.

All of these things have been done in America. They were achieved, not so long ago, through strong leadership from donors, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropists of all stripes. Similar things can be done today.

Good citizens don’t just consume governance; they produce it

Keep in mind that civil society, volunteer help, and charitable assistance sprang up in the U.S. even before government did. In most of our new communities, mutual aid among neighbors was solving problems long before there were duly constituted agencies of the state. When the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville studied America’s rich tradition of voluntary action almost 200 years ago, what impressed him was not just its ability to meet practical needs, but the way it exercised and strengthened the social muscles required for people to govern themselves in a healthy republic. Tocqueville believed that the many charities and civic groups operating across the U.S. were not just signs but ultimately the source of effective self-rule.

Widespread involvement in societies created to solve local problems “fosters a taste for liberty among the people, and teaches them the art of being free,” summarized Tocqueville. An “American learns about the law by participating in the making of it. He teaches himself about the forms of government by governing. He watches the great work of society being done every day before his eyes, and, in a sense, by his hand…. So feeble and limited is the share of government left to the administration…it is fair to say that the people govern themselves.”

It isn’t just the mechanics of democratic rule that develop in this way. Empathy for other citizens also grows out of the personal contact of civic association. “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon another,” says Tocqueville.

Edmund Burke also viewed local associations as the nursery for broader loyalty to one’s fellow man. “The little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind,” he wrote.

Allowing people to vote every couple years on whether to change a few members of a class of full-time politicians ruling over us is not American-style self-rule.

Jefferson promoted a style of governance “where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic…and feels that he is a participant in the government of affairs, not merely at election one day in the year, but every day.” This is not just theory, but the way America was set up to operate, and the way it came to thrive.

So that’s our history. What about now? Writer John McClaughry warns that today “we are steadily reducing the scope of local civic responsibility.” When we insist on professionalizing and centralizing all social problem-solving in government, we fall into the trap that Jefferson warned against: “concentrating all cares into one body.” Allowing people to vote every couple years on whether to change a few members of a class of full-time politicians ruling over us is not American-style self-rule.

“This is the issue: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” That was how Ronald Reagan put it in one of his classic speeches. When we transfer responsibility for strengthening our communities away from the direct-democracy of civil society and charity and voluntary action, and toward bureaucratic agencies instead, we don’t just get clumsier, more impersonal services—we shrink the arena of American citizenship, as McClaughry puts it. That is a crucial reason so many Americans now feel alienated from government and politics.

And for all of this, philanthropic action is a perfect antidote. You can think of the millions and millions of private givers and volunteers in our country, and the hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations, as a kind of matrix of private legislatures. They define social ills, set goals and priorities for attacking them, then methodically marshal money and labor toward solutions. And philanthropic Americans do all this spontaneously—without asking the state’s permission. When we do these things we become producers of governance rather than just consumers of government. We take direct action to improve the life around us instead of being dependent citizens who wait for officials to descend as saviors.

Philanthropy and government

Enlightened, practical, democratic leaders shouldn’t just tolerate the independent actions of donors and volunteers, they should encourage them. Social entrepreneur Neerav Kingsland, who gained prominence by helping build the nation’s most extensive web of independent charter schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, has argued that the most effective and humane thing that many public servants can do today to help needy populations is to let go of their monopolies on power. He uses the term “Relinquishers” to describe progress-minded officials who are willing to transfer authority away from centralized bureaucracies in order to allow experimentation and improvement driven by philanthropy, commerce, grassroots activism, and other independent forces.

As an example of how quickly societal conditions can improve when intelligent Relinquishers cede power to civil actors, consider the events that unfolded in New Orleans after philanthropists were allowed to pour resources and expertise into restructuring that city’s schools following the Katrina disaster. Government continued to provide funds, fair rules, and accountability, but it allowed independent operators launched with philanthropic seed-funding to take over the running of academies. The result was that the number of classroom seats rated “high-quality” quadrupled in four years. The proportion of ninth graders graduating on time four years later leapt from 54 to 73 percent. The fraction of students showing adequate proficiency on state tests doubled. The ACT scores of graduating seniors hit an historic high.

If ceding or sharing responsibility for societal improvement with funders and volunteers in civil society will often be the most practical path to success—as well as the more democratic course—why do some government authorities resist it?

Tyrants hate philanthropy for obvious reasons. In countries like Russia, China, and Iran, charities are regularly shut down out of fear that they’ll provide solutions and social legitimacy outside of the state. Only the freest societies have had flourishing philanthropic sectors. In America, our freedom to make charitable interventions without supervision or control is ultimately sheltered by the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights, which protects our right to assemble and act outside of government, to dissent, to take heterogeneous, unpopular, or minority-supported action to redress grievances.

But even in free countries like the U.S., there are many officials who prefer that everyday citizens be consumers of government rather than producers of governance through their own actions. Other than in the first week of November they want us to stay home and leave refinement of American society to “the experts.” Most politicians, in both parties, proceed as if our country has only two problem-solving sectors: the public sector of government and the private sector of business. They ignore the third sector that operates in the space between the coercion of law and the profit-seeking of commerce, between the isolated individual and the impersonal state.

Philanthropy and government are often competitors in serving the public welfare, and Americans who prefer that society be steered from a central position frequently resist philanthropic solutions. In some quarters, “the very idea of competition with government is, by a weird public myth, thought to be illegitimate, disruptive, divisive, unproductive, and perhaps immoral,” writes Richard Cornuelle. That, he warns, is a mistake.

Far from being illegitimate, lively competition with government is essential if our democratic institutions are to work sensibly.... The government doesn’t ignore public opinion because the people who run it are naturally perverse. It isn’t wasteful because it is manned by wasteful people.... Without competition, the bureaucracy can’t make government efficient.... Innovation painfully disrupts its way of life. Reform comes only through competitive outsiders who force steady efficient adjustment to changing situations.

Outside resistance isn’t the only obstacle. Advocates of voluntary action themselves sometimes get lazy or timid. Philanthropy “must be as eager as government to take on new public problems,” urges Cornuelle. “Its unique indispensable natural role in America is to compete with government.”

Government is important but can’t rescue us on its own

Obviously we don’t expect or want government to entirely wither away. There’s scant chance of that in any case! All modern trends are in the direction of state bloat and an increasingly heavy tread from public entities.

But it is foolish to expect that government is going to ride to the rescue of our culture. Government is not becoming more effective today. It is not growing nimbler. It is not zeroing in on our central stresses and weaknesses.

As we transfer responsibility for strengthening our communities away from the direct democracy of civil society, charity, and voluntary action, and toward bureaucratic agencies instead, we don’t just get clumsier, more impersonal services—we shrink the arena of American citizenship. That is a crucial reason so many Americans today feel alienated from government and politics.

So philanthropy should. And can. Scads of social improvements have been instigated by philanthropy while government was AWOL. In recent years, philanthropists have stepped into many breaches in performance by public agencies and offered repairs.

  • It is philanthropy and civil society that sparked real and desperately needed education reform, providing the most helpful new ideas of the last generation for improving public education. Examples include charter schools, Teach For America, hard-headed teacher assessment and accountability, value-added pay, potent new STEM programs, widened access to school choice, revived religious and private schools for needy children, enriched digital-learning options, and much more.
  • Donors jumped obstacles to improve the management of many neglected or mishandled medical conditions like autism, breast and prostate cancer, Ebola, and schizophrenia.
  • Givers inaugurated the Green Revolution, attacked tropical diseases, invented and spread microlending, promoted individual land ownership for peasants, and shielded entrepreneurs from government stultification in order to reduce misery in developing countries.
  • Philanthropy has revived hundreds of ill-maintained urban parks that millions of Americans depend on to refresh themselves (beginning with Central Park in New York City), and is creating many dramatically new and popular parks in underserved areas of Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Tulsa, Dallas, Memphis, Louisville, and other cities.
  • It is philanthropy and civil society that recently invented new approaches to chronic problems in the U.S. like foster care and adoption backlogs, drunk driving, health relapses among elderly patients just released from hospitals, addictions to smoking/drugs/alcohol, various stall-outs in medical innovation, and so forth.
  • Amidst gross underperformance by government job-training programs, philanthropy is strengthening the ability of community colleges to transform manual workers into middle-skill employees with technical and service capacities that are 1) badly needed by our economy, and 2) paid wages that will support a family at a middle-class level.
  • At research universities, donors have been crucial in birthing important new fields like biomedical engineering, computer-assisted learning, gerontology, character and leadership education, systems biology, and so forth—frequently after battling through serious resistance from government and other bureaucracies.
  • Even when it comes to getting government’s own house in order in the form of repairing today’s dangerous trillion-dollar underfunding of public-pension systems, it is philanthropists who have guided political leaders to constructive win-win solutions in locales ranging from Rhode Island to Detroit to Utah.

For concrete suggestions on successes that might be added in the future to the roster of philanthropic assists to American governance, see the subsection “A wish list for next steps” a few pages ahead.

It’s not wise to rely solely on government

Be aware that jealous, controlling politicians will often resist an assertive charitable sector. Many are reluctant to share responsibilities with civil society and private associations. Few elected officials have any idea of how important philanthropy has been to the process of social invention in America.

“Every single great idea that has marked the twenty-first century, the twentieth century, and the nineteenth century has required government vision and government incentive,” said Vice President Joe Biden recently. “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America,” insisted Senator Ted Kennedy.

People with this view overlook the potent accomplishments of private giving throughout American history. (See this essay’s case studies, and the 1,340 pages of the recently published Almanac of American Philanthropy, for an abundance of examples.) They also ignore the dangers of relying solely on government as an agent of reform.

Advocates who would have you believe that no good social change happens unless the government engineers it like to cite the civil rights movement as a favorite example. Is that accurate? Let’s look at the actual forces that ended second-class citizenship in the U.S.

Back in 1704—when 1,500 African Americans in New York City were held in bondage with full government sanction, and educating them was forbidden, private donors set up schools to instruct hundreds of slaves on the quiet. In the early 1830s, when state and federal governments still made it a crime to teach a slave to read, private donors like Arthur Tappan were paying for African Americans to go to college. In 1865, the donor-funded American Missionary Association put 350 agents in the field and invested the modern equivalent of several hundred million dollars to protect newly emancipated slaves from vengeful mobs and help them buy emergency rations, find land to settle on, marry legally, and put their children in schools. The AMA also chartered and privately funded eight academies that became the core of what are now referred to as America’s historically black colleges and universities.

Less than two years after the bullets of the Civil War stopped flying, philanthropist George Peabody was distributing millions of his own dollars across the South to train teachers and set up schools without racial considerations so that freed slaves and other illiterates could get learning—despite the ferocious antipathy of state and local governments for that cause. In 1891, philanthropist Katharine Drexel gave her entire fortune (half a billion dollars in contemporary terms) to create a new religious order devoted to assisting blacks and Native Americans. She established 50 schools for African Americans, 145 missions and 12 schools for Native Americans, plus the black college Xavier University in New Orleans. In these same years, governments at all levels were doing little more than breaking promises to Native Americans and neglecting African Americans.

As the twentieth century opened, hundreds of governments were fiercely enforcing Jim Crow laws that stunted the education of blacks. But John Rockefeller was pouring money into his new effort to provide primary education to African Americans. Then he boosted up 1,600 new high schools for blacks and poor whites. He eventually put almost $325 million of his personal fortune into the venture. Simultaneously he was spending millions to improve the health and daily productivity of poor blacks and whites by nearly eliminating the hookworm that was then endemic in rural areas.

You can think of the millions and millions of private givers and volunteers in our country, and the hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations, as a kind of matrix of private legislatures. They define social ills, set goals and priorities for executing them, then methodically marshal money and labor toward solutions.

Numerous private givers followed the leads of Tappan, Peabody, Drexel, and Rockefeller and donated millions of dollars to improve the education and social status of African Americans at a time when they had no friends in government. Philanthropic help came from Anna Jeanes’s Negro Rural Schools Fund, the Phelps Stokes Fund, the Virginia Randolph Fund, the John Slater Fund, and legions of individuals. These continued their work until government finally caught up and started desegregating schools in the 1960s.

African-American youngsters whose education and social conditions were being wholly neglected by the state got their biggest lift of all from philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Starting in 1912, he donated the current equivalent of billions of dollars to build schoolhouses in hundreds of counties where black education was 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 schools he built were educating fully 27 percent of all the African-American children in our country.

Many economic producers and sensible leaders graduated from these philanthropic schools. Absent those private efforts by donors, 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 arms of government did their very best to resist or obstruct it.

That’s not ancient history

A skeptic might say, “Well that’s nice, but it’s ancient history. Today, the government leads all necessary reform of this sort.” That is gravely mistaken.

Guess where America’s most segregated and often most inadequate government-run schools are located at present? All in northern cities with activist governments (like Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Newark, Chicago, and Philadelphia), according to research by the U.C.L.A. Civil Rights Project and others. In inner-city schools, a third to a half of all minority students fail to graduate from high school, and the academic competence of even those who do graduate is grossly below the national standard. Enormous commitments of effort and money to conventional government-run schools over the last 25 years have brought hardly any progress against these failures.

There is just one place where education has clearly improved in inner cities: charter schooling. About 7,000 charter schools (and rising fast) have been seeded across the U.S. by donors and social entrepreneurs, starting from zero 25 years ago. Two thirds of charter-school students are minorities, and half are extremely low-income. Yet Stanford researchers and other investigators find that these children are receiving significantly better educations than counterparts in conventional government-run schools, in some cases outscoring comfortable suburban schools in annual testing. Families have voted with their feet, pulling millions of their children from conventional government-run schools. More languish on the long waiting lists created by artificially capped school numbers, inequitable funding, and other means some public officials have used to obstruct expansion of the most important social invention of the last generation for American children.

Or let’s look at another area where conventional wisdom says progress can be made only under governmental banners: saving refugees of war.

When in 1915 Ottomans launched a genocide 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 save lives and then sustain survivors. Nearly 1,000 Americans volunteered to go to the region to build orphanages and help refugees. They assumed responsibility for 130,000 mother- and fatherless children, and rescued more than a million adults.

When we take direct action to improve the life around us, instead of waiting for officials to descend as saviors, we become producers of governance rather than just consumers of government.

When at about that same time the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire discovered that Jews in Palestine were starving to death, his urgent telegram went to philanthropist Jacob Schiff in New York rather than to Washington. A fundraising committee was set up, and over the next few years it distributed hundreds of millions of dollars, donated by more than 3 million private givers, protecting many thousands of Jews.

It was a similar story when fascism swept Europe. The U.S. government dragged its feet and failed to organize any competent effort to save the Jews, gypsies, Christians, and others targeted by the Nazis. Private donors jumped into the breach. The Rockefeller Foundation, for instance, established two special funds that worked, under the most difficult wartime conditions, to relocate mortally endangered individuals to Allied countries.

As with our civil-rights example, philanthropy taking up crucial overseas burdens in the face of government failure 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 effective actor by far was philanthropist George Soros—who used $50 million of his own money to insert a highly capable 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 provisions. It has been estimated that Soros’s gift saved more lives than the on-the-ground interventions of all national governments plus the United Nations combined.

A wish list for next steps

Again, this is not a call to give up efforts to improve our government and political process. Patriotic Americans will always work for a better public sector and healthy politics. But efforts at government improvement proceed at glacial rates—and regularly retreat backward. While those back-and-forth attempts at good government unfold, philanthropy can make many real-life improvements in America.

Where might you as a social entrepreneur make a contribution, starting almost immediately? Many exciting initiatives are already incubating and could be expanded quickly by enlightened philanthropists. Others are ripe for the founding. Here are some practical suggestions on where leaders of civil society could be enormously helpful to America over the next decade or so, if they will put their minds, shoulders, and checkbooks to the task:

  • An urgent attack is needed on drug addiction using modern tools of science, pharmacology, social reinforcement, faith, and economics. Donors could also inaugurate sophisticated new campaigns against the precursors that lead to addiction among vulnerable populations.
  • Speaking of new, what’s preventing tech-oriented philanthropists from launching a large collaborative crusade to reduce today’s dire weaknesses in cybersecurity? Many of the ugly privacy breaches and worrying security holes in our computer webs are just a result of out-of-date procedures and tools, and a shortage of understanding. As can be attested by anyone who has seen the antique technology on display in Social Security offices, FAA control towers, or police stations, government is usually the last sector where advanced computer standards arrive. But a mix of nonprofit organizations and private companies could research this yawning problem, establish consensus on common standards, and lead the way toward less hackability and fallibility in the IT networks on which so much of our personal and national lives now depend.
  • America desperately needs a bloom of creative services that can stop the rocketing rise of single-parent childrearing—which is seriously damaging the well-being of our next generation of American children, and feeding the tumorous growth of many secondary social pathologies. Unlike a generation ago when Americans sensed this was a problem but had no idea how to reverse it, we are now getting research and embryonic field experimentation, including from The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Culture of Freedom Initiative, that donors can build on to find lasting solutions to family decay.
  • Vigorous Americanization efforts that provide immigrants with accelerated language training, computer literacy, higher job skills, family coaching, and citizenship instruction could speed the success and integration of this last generation’s large bulge of new arrivals—many of whom live and work with awkward separations from other Americans, creating unease on all sides. This is work that thousands of philanthropists energetically threw themselves into in previous American eras—with enormous success—so we needn’t wonder whether this is an undertaking that lends itself to civil-society solutions. It does.
  • Another sector where civil society has proven it can make progress (and where government is utterly disqualified from even trying to help) is in rebuilding the religious participation of Americans. Within the last decade or two we have entered onto a steep and slippery downward slope when it comes to the practice of faith—with many negative ramifications for community intactness, mutual aid, generosity to others, rates of volunteering, and the inculcation of healthy habits that help individuals resist destructive personal behaviors. The sky is the limit on ways donors could help. How about bolstering today’s most effective seminaries (just as donors have expanded our most effective K-12 teacher-training programs)? How about rotating capital funds to help burgeoning churches that often now perch in rented sanctuaries, suburban office parks, high-school auditoriums, or strip malls buy the inspiring but nearly empty and moldering buildings of ghost congregations in cities, creating exciting physical campuses where muscular religious practice and healing can be revived where they are most needed? How about just doing a better job of letting people know what’s available? In one recent test in Dayton, Ohio, through the Culture of Freedom Initiative, donors were able to increase church attendance at 110 participating congregations by applying sophisticated market research and microtargeting.
  • One of the most troubling trends in our welfare state today is the soaring rate at which prime-age individuals are enrolling in permanent disability programs. Millions are dropping out of the productive workforce to depend on easy but dribbling public payments that often leave them not only economically hand-to-mouth but also socially disconnected and personally depressed. Over the last generation we’ve undergone medical, technological, and legal revolutions that make it possible for almost anyone to contribute to society—it’s just a matter of finding the right match of job abilities, needs, and accommodations. But so far we’ve wasted these new opportunities to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream self-support. Inventive philanthropists could have an enormous influence in rolling back today’s troubling surge of Americans languishing on disability. Some donors already are, like those backing the Independence Project now being run by HireHeroesUSA to transform injured veterans into proudly independent workers instead of government dependents. There is an enormous upside for more work like this.
  • More generally, the nonprofit sector needs to lead a push to rain and re-train the large number of Americans who have dropped out of the labor force, are stuck in jobs that can’t support their families, or are clinging by their fingernails to positions likely to disappear in the future. Our modern economy requires a culture of lifelong learning and regular skill-burnishing, yet government agencies have a dismal record at these tasks. Nonprofit organizations, however, have showed real verve in figuring out how to train economic strugglers, as documented in two recent guidebooks from The Philanthropy Roundtable (Clearing Obstacles to Work, and Learning to Be Useful). An expansion of these tailored job-training efforts, which transform the lives of men and women missed by state programs, would be an enormous public service.
  • We need new approaches to homelessness that treat the whole person, combining material and therapeutic supports with a tough-love approach that expects and requires from the beneficiary personal investment and change.
  • The pioneering work that has been done in Colorado, Georgia, and other states showing that backlogs of children languishing in foster care can be radically reduced needs to be transferred to scores of other states and expanded, with philanthropic investment, bringing much more wholesome family life to hundreds of thousands of threatened boys and girls.
  • Today’s nascent efforts to provide mentoring, job services, family bolstering, church support, and housing help to individuals who are leaving prison need to be scaled up dramatically. Millions of convicted persons will be returning to our communities over the next decade. Whether they become assets, burdens, or predators is to some considerable degree up to us as neighbors.

Philanthropy’s bandwidth is increasing

These are all prime targets for philanthropic intervention. In many of these areas, there are reasons to believe not only that civil society can succeed, but that civil society is the only entity that has a fighting chance to make permanent progress against these afflictions. While they are gearing up new ventures like those I’ve suggested above, some philanthropists have asked me whether they might need to throttle back a bit on overseas aid, arts grants, university funding, and other kinds of good work in order to free up some resources and managerial bandwidth. I believe such funding could be moderated for a period of time, without undue harm, to open up space for fresh and urgently needed culture reform. Ultimately, though, each donor must make that decision for him- or herself.

There is good reason to believe that philanthropy can do more than it is today without requiring drastic zero-sum cuts to existing efforts. For one thing, charitable giving has been stuck at about 2 percent of GDP for many decades. Discretionary income and standards of living have risen dramatically over that same time, so there is room for increased giving without personal pain.

And the personalization revolution now sweeping modern society is giving donors new ways to succeed. Localized solutions, case-by-case variation of social services, relying on trial-and-error tests to see what works—these are longstanding strengths of charitable problem-solving (as I’ll touch on in the subsection “Centerless self-rule” just ahead). In a personalized, crowdsourced, decentralized, sharing economy, philanthropy is well positioned to thrive. As valuable as it has been in the past, there is reason to believe private giving can be even more useful for fixing social glitches in the future.

Especially since the charitable sector is advancing fast in mechanics. Charities are taking up powerful new tools and improving traditional methods. Bold efforts are now bringing the power of the profit motive, practical techniques from business, the creative energy of entrepreneurship, and the cool discipline of investment strategy to philanthropic projects. There are many exciting innovations in form: investments and loans where once there were just grants, openness to charitable work done through LLCs, better tracking and assessment, more giving by individuals instead of just foundations, more young donors.

In “applying investment and business tools to social problems,” argues venture-capitalist Ronald Cohen, “we are on the verge of a revolution.” Harvard Business Review writer Paula Goldman quotes hedge-funder Bill Ackman’s conclusion that “when I graduated from business school I thought business was about making money, and philanthropy was about doing good. Now I think both can be used as methods for changing the world.”

And in all of this, philanthropic change generally comes with much less friction than politically driven change. As one social entrepreneur has put it, philanthropy relies on “the social dynamic of addition and multiplication,” while government action often comes via “subtraction and division.”

How to convert polarization into something positive

Division. One of the commonest refrains from present observers of American society is that we are fragmented and lack broad agreement on many issues. The positive pet phrase is that we are “diverse.” The negative operating reality is that different segments of the population are often in sharp disagreement. To use the title of a recent book by Yuval Levin, we are The Fractured Republic.

We need competing local experiments where the ideas of different subcultures are tested in daily life so we can see which practices are actually good for human flourishing, and which are snake oil.

Having lots of differences doesn’t have to be a problem. There is actually deep strength in America’s crazy-quilt of perspectives and interest groups, so long as:

  • we have clear-eyed means of assessing the outcomes of diverse behaviors, and then expanding the successes and shuttering the failures,
  • while meantime avoiding stepping on each other’s toes (more on this in the next sub-section).

The key to making diversity a storehouse of strength instead of a disruptive sore is to let lots and lots of people invent their own solutions to problems within their own orbits, and eventually have them compete to see whose answers might have wider relevance and value to other elements of society. In some cases, what works in Utah may be very different from what works in New Jersey. In other instances, discoveries made in Utah may transfer perfectly well to lots of other places.

To find this out, we should encourage a social marketplace of micro-experiments in culture, social organization, family healing, moral teachings, economic incentives, and so forth. Rather than pretending we all share the same assumptions, want the same end results, have equally worthy goals, and are willing to put equal effort into realizing our goals, we need competing local laboratories—ranging from regional alliances to subcultures based on shared principles—where ideas can be developed in daily life so we can see which practices are actually good for human flourishing over an extended period, and which are snake oil.

Our country was set up on a “federalist” basis so that each state would have its own identity and many of its own peculiar ways of governing itself. Important social responsibilities like education, welfare payments, and transportation links were pushed even further down to county, city, or village governments. Our founders insisted on letting many flowers bloom, with confidence that people would migrate to the loveliest scents while leaving behind those that turned ugly.

Throughout our history there have been periodic attempts to reinforce the federalist quality of our nation. The 1980s, for instance, brought concerted efforts to shift some authority from officials in Washington to state and local governments. Nothing wrong with that, but what I am proposing here is much more thoroughgoing—lots of tasks should be shifted out of government altogether and handed off to the organs of civil society.

Because they will be locally tailored, these micro-experiments will vary in many crucial ways. Since they are philanthropic-voluntary, instead of government-mandatory, they will be gentler and more respectful of dissenting perspectives than even the smallest-scale government monopolies will ever be. “By empowering problem-solvers throughout American society, rather than hoping that Washington will get things right,” argues Levin, we can “bring to public policy the kind of dispersed, incremental, bottom-up approach to progress that increasingly pervades every other part of American life.” Micro-governance would also yield less feeling among Americans of being bossed or coerced, and a stronger sense of being involved in the community.

Real diversity—not balkanization, not enforced fashion

Note, however, that this will require true accommodation of diversity—not the fake diversity that is now promulgated by ideologues. Today’s fake diversity hypes its openness to differences in things like skin color and sexual practice, but has scant tolerance for real dissent from fashionable views. Boy Scouts of America principles don’t match your views? Deny them use of public buildings! Catholic Charities wants to run its private adoption and foster-care service by placing children solely with married mother/father couples? Force them out of business in Boston, D.C., Illinois, and other places! Charitable job-training programs want to start hard-to-place workers at less than the minimum wage? Forbid it! Nonprofit hospitals decline to provide life-terminating procedures or “sex-reassignment” services among their offerings? Slap on financial penalties. Schools want to try single-sex classrooms? Sue them!

Fake tolerance “pays lip service to diversity but has narrow bandwidth for real differences,” argue Kinnaman and Lyons. Fake tolerance insists that civil society must be a melting pot where intellectual and moral differences on contested issues are boiled down to a uniform conventional wisdom. “We all become the same. Anything not the same is, in the name of tolerance, skimmed off and thrown out. In this climate, those who dissent are evil and must be neutralized.”

Kinnaman and Lyons, and other thinkers who are uncomfortable with this version of civil society that turns conscientious objectors into deviants, are calling for a true, “confident pluralism” that would substitute the potluck for the melting pot as a model for civil society. You bring fried chicken. I’ll bring bean salad. Someone else will offer cupcakes. Visitors to the table can pick up what they want or need, and simply walk away from what they find unappealing.

Americans with viewpoints that do not cohere to current fashion must energetically defend their right to live and solve problems in their own ways. Kinnaman and Lyons, for instance, urge devoted Christians to shape themselves into “a principled counterculture for the common good.” They should have no illusions that the elite establishment shares their convictions. But they should not hesitate to demand the liberty to find their own answers to modern life, unmolested so long as they remain within basic law. Yuval Levin urges that “rather than struggling for dominance of the increasingly weakened institutions of the mainstream culture” (which is what someone must do if he is contesting in politics), today’s intellectual and moral dissenters should build “cohesive and attractive subcultures” that can prove out the viability of their social prescriptions.

These are prime tasks for civil society, philanthropy, and voluntary action. Down the road, successful subcultures can become models for wider reform and even political emulation. But in the meantime, people can build good lives according to their cherished principles, and keep evolved wisdom alive until our social fractures heal enough to allow its rediscovery by wider society.

This is not wishful thinking. Localized, non-uniform responses to human needs are what philanthropic entrepreneurs create all the time. The last two or three decades brought an explosion of private experiments seeking solutions to public problems, resulting in many triumphs like those I’ve been describing throughout this essay. The thousands of dispersed social reforms documented in The Almanac of American Philanthropy occurred in almost every sector of U.S. society, at a pace that accelerated during recent years.

Being truly respectful of differing intellectual perspectives, and devolving authority to groups of Americans so they can chip away at problems in their backyards in ways they think best, can do more than just make our communities function better. It can also help cure the popular unrest seen in the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The deepest and most understandable complaint of angry voters today, argues writer Andy Smarick, is their feeling of powerlessness, their sense that their concerns and perspectives are not represented in government, that their values are rarely enshrined in public policies. “The straightforward solution,” he suggests, “is to give more people more power.” And he adds a crucial coda: “The way to do that is decentralization.”

Centerless self-rule

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was convinced that the U.S. had a secret ministry of central planning hidden somewhere in Washington. An economy as big and successful as ours without someone in the middle giving orders? Inconceivable!

But the truth is, we are a country of centerless excellence. There is no one in charge of making sure that your local store doesn’t run out of fresh milk. Yet it never does! In a culture where resources and authority are widely dispersed, people tend to their own needs very efficiently.

There is a great $50 word to describe this: Polyarchy. Polyarchy refers to a society in which there are many independent centers of power. (Contrast it to monarchy.) The United States has a notably polyarchic culture. And independent philanthropic giving is one big aspect of this. Go back to my earlier image portraying the millions of givers and charitable enterprises in our country as miniature legislatures that identify problems, develop fixes, and then act. It’s a very, very dispersed style of social governance.

The constant downpour of individual charitable decisions leads to a much wider and multi-branched stream of national spending, and much better protection of non-mainline points of view, than any unitary government effort could provide. That’s why Yale law professor Stephen Carter refers to philanthropy as “democracy in action.”

The fact that most philanthropy takes place on a local level, usually out of the public eye, often on a private or even anonymous basis, means that it’s very easy to overlook the force of this democracy in action. Most of us never see more than just a few small fragments of private giving at work. The result is that we grossly underestimate the problem-solving power of charitable action, and how valuable it is to our nation.

Moreover, you will regularly hear voluntary action criticized specifically for its polyarchic, decentralized nature. People complain that “philanthropy is not coordinated.” Rules vary; there are holes; people go off in a hundred different directions. No one’s in control!

Voluntary action is very different from the standardized uniformity of government programs. There’s a problem with standardization, though: Human beings don’t come in a standard model. And treating them as if they did will often have harmful effects.

The healthiest forms of society-building frequently vary over time and place—to match up better with particular people and specific conditions. The best solutions will often evolve in lots of little trial-and-error tests. Some efforts will fail, but the failures will be exposed and abandoned, and the successes will be copied. This kind of decentralized, results-based problem-solving is exactly where private philanthropy thrives.

In addition to uncovering new ways of solving social problems, competing experiments in micro-governance would give citizens a deeper sense of being involved in the community, and less feeling of being bossed or coerced.

Warren Buffett recently pointed out to journalist Nina Munk that when he’s seeking investment home runs, “I’m looking for the easy pitches. I just wait for the one that’s in my sweet spot. Philanthropy is just the opposite: You’re dealing with problems that have resisted easy solutions.” So in philanthropy he encourages his collaborators not to fear failure. “I’ve told them that unless they had failures, they were failures. It’s the nature of philanthropy that you’re going to fail.” But when you do succeed through voluntary action’s trial-and-error tests, you can often ride the wave for a very long way—because you have located the natural tides, and developed good human balance.

The potency of dispersed action has been brought into high relief by the computer revolution. As computerized problem-solving unfolded, it became clear that centralized control was ultimately inferior to lots and lots of small-scale, independent thinking. The story of the Internet is the accumulated power of millions of small actions. The lesson of the hacker culture is that one individual with a laptop can do astonishing things. The crowdsourcing of Wikipedia and Linux have blown away alternate solutions controlled from the top.

Decentralized governance is obviously now a powerful trend in American business as well. Airbnbs are not uniform, as Holiday Inns or Marriotts are. Yet they are wildly popular with real people.

Many of our most productive nonprofits are extraordinarily decentralized. Goodwill is made up of 163 autonomous regional affiliates, each with its own board of directors, funding sources, and methods of operation. Habitat for Humanity is a network of 1,400 self-governing and self-funding local chapters. Fluttering over thousands of scientific breakthroughs produced by America’s private research universities every year are highly scattered flocks of donor funders.

A recent article in Education Week reported that most education reforms of the last generation have turned out to be disappointingly feeble, but that bottom-up reforms have brought much more success than proposals dictated by education authorities. “The slower, decentralized approach…is not nearly as satisfying as advocating for huge sweeping changes,” writes Mike McShane, but it has improved life for far more students. “The broad, sweeping endeavors haven’t lived up to the hype, and children have paid the price” every time a grand educational fad has been imposed from the top.

So the fact that philanthropy doesn’t solve problems in a consistent way is nothing to criticize or apologize for. That civil society acts through a plethora of radically independent, small-scale, non-consistent entities should not be a concern. These are in fact some of the reasons that dispersed, non-governmental, voluntary problem-solving tends to be more efficacious.

The people’s choice

The American people have already recognized the desirability of the approach I’m outlining here. Asked in a recent Heartland Monitor Poll what was most responsible for improvements in their local area over the past ten years, respondents picked “contributions by community organizations” over “government policies” by 2:1. Asked whether they would prefer that institutions stick to established paths or “try new ideas and solutions, even if the outcomes may be uncertain,” the public favored experimentation by 71 percent to 20 percent.

In a 2016 survey for Independent Sector, 74 percent of voters said they would rather give their money to charities than to the federal government, and 78 percent said that they want government to engage more with charities to solve problems. When the Heartland respondents were asked where they think useful new ideas for addressing America’s problems are most likely to come from, they picked “state and local institutions” over “national institutions” by 67 percent to 24 percent. Asked about their own region, fully 84 percent of Americans said the best solutions came from “programs by local volunteer and nonprofit organizations.”

As gloomy as we are about the direction of the nation, Americans feel much more positive about trends in our local area. By 66 percent to 25 percent, people told the Heartland Monitor that their local region is headed in the right direction rather than the wrong direction.

Recent reporting echoes this data. New York Times columnist David Brooks traveled to some of the more economically stressed parts of the United States in the first half of 2016, then wrote up what he found: “The more time you spend in the hardest places, the more amazed you become. There’s some movement arising that believes in the small moments of connection…. The social fabric is tearing across this country, but everywhere it seems healers are rising up to repair their small piece of it. They are going into hollow places and creating community, building intimate relationships that change lives one by one.”

A similar essay in The Atlantic by James Fallows was based on scores of visits by small plane to unglamorous spots all across the country. He discovered myriad examples of “local resilience and adaptability” and “revival and reinvention” engineered by neighborhood organizers and givers. The closer you get to a community and its on-the-ground leaders, Fallows concluded, the more impressive America looks.

Even the Brookings Institution, which helped orchestrate much of our current concentration of authority in Washington, is now issuing reports rueing the fact that so much power, money, and elite expectation have become centered on the “executive juggernaut” in D.C. More “localism” is one Brookings proposal for curing widespread public disillusionment against the federal government. Clearly, both the American public and some open-minded elites are willing to try dramatically different ways of solving our cultural problems.

Dreaming up new paths; defending proven ones

So how do we find these missing solutions? “Imagination precedes fact,” poet David Rowbotham reminds us. Contemporary America needs an imaginative burst of new charities, businesses, clubs, and schools capable of fixing social problems that vex us. We need original approaches and programs from existing institutions. We need fresh publishing, art, and historical research that stirs us and moves thinking beyond some very stale conventional wisdom.

We need social entrepreneurship that (to borrow a phrase from Kinnaman and Lyons) has a firm center but soft edges. That may be just the opposite of the way you like your eggs, but it is a good operating goal for reform-philanthropists: Establish a base camp on sturdy principle, and defend it against critics who would like to push you off. But never wall yourself in—keep your perimeter open so recruits can join up, have a sharp eye for new developments that may require you to shift tactics, and welcome all allies from whatever quarter.

You should expect the same openness in the camps of other social inventors. And if jealous or censorious government forces try to overrun you, fight back.

Be on guard to the fact that the ideological warriors who have destroyed our politics are also now lobbing shells into philanthropy and civil society. Several new kinds of attacks on private giving and givers are entering currency. Hostile reporters, activists, and politicians now paint images of “donor puppetmasters,” complain that America is “privatizing the public good,” conjure up conspiracies of “dark money,” and claim that charitable dollars are actually “public” funds that should be subject to political steering.

Even venerable philanthropic triumphs like Teach For America and KIPP schools are under attack. TFA is simultaneously criticized as elitist and as amateurish. It and KIPP are ripped for promulgating concepts of work, success, self-discipline, and excellence that radicals depict as “imposing cultural expectations” on the next generation. Ideological pressure is having effects: applications to TFA have tumbled 35 percent over the last three years.

Culture warriors have been even harsher on social entrepreneurs with a faith orientation. In advocacy groups, the media, and powerful corners of politics, there are now aggressive efforts to strip protections for speech and action based on religious conscience. There are efforts to push faith leaders and faith language out of the public square. There are proposals that religious organizations should be taxed. It’s starkly new in the U.S. that such strains of argument would become so common.

People who value our remarkably productive civil society must make it a priority in coming years to protect the full participation of religious Americans. For in addition to threatening liberties at the heart of our country’s founding, anti-religious attitudes and policies have the potential to undo much of our best social work. Practicing Christians are more than three times likelier than others to adopt or foster unwanted children. Catholic and other faith-based schools are a vital safety net for millions of poor students. The most effective programs for helping newly released convicts stay out of prison are ones run by religious volunteers. Much of our best work against homelessness has a religious motivation. The most efficient charities for aiding disaster victims and the poor overseas are faith-based. Anyone who cares about solving today’s hardest social problems must defend the ability of faith entrepreneurs to operate freely.

This is not a political matter. Progressive activist and former Cornell University trustee Joseph Holland recently argued that energized religious activity would repair more of what ails America “than the grandiose theories of armchair secularists…than the perpetual pontifications of partisan politicians.” He blew a clarion in his campus address:

What if students at colleges across America, perhaps starting with a chapter here at Cornell, resolved to give our nation a two hundred fiftieth birthday gift? A far-reaching foray to fix at long last America’s racial breakdown, not decreed from the state houses but rising from the grassroots. A modern-day awakening that would inspire across the lines of race, ethnicity, and religion, to spiritually uplift the prosperous and materially uplift the poor, resulting in a refounding movement for our times.

There are many other places where America needs to keep minds and doors open to starkly new varieties of social reform. For instance, social scientist Charles Murray has recently proposed eliminating government social programs and instead providing a “universal basic income” of nearly $1,100 per month to every citizen. People in need of social services would be able to take their cash allotments to nonprofits or businesses to get help. Would this improve their chances of obtaining real, lasting solutions to their personal and family problems? That’s worth thinking through and testing. Whether you view this as a dramatic policy proposal or just a thought experiment, there is much we can learn from giving real consideration to original ideas like this.

Civil society doesn’t have magical powers. But it is composed of a vast variety of experience-tested operations of all complexions—secular and religious, material and moral, “conservative” or “liberal,” national or local. Opportunities to match people seeking improvement to groups that have shown they can help should be grasped wherever possible. Even if our government remains gridlocked in the future, there are almost unlimited numbers of ways that America’s free society can continue to be strengthened, as often as patriotic philanthropists decide to become involved.

Practical advice from the godfather

With this being a 25th anniversary of The Philanthropy Roundtable, it seems fitting as I close to invoke some cautionary wisdom from Irving Kristol. Kristol was an important American social thinker and a founder of the Roundtable. In a speech to the Council on Foundations in 1980 he encouraged philanthropists who want to strengthen our national fabric to begin in modest and practical ways, rather than overreach into large projects right away.

His first bit of advice: Start small and be incremental.

It really is possible to do good. Doing good isn’t even hard. It’s just doing a lot of good that is very hard. If your aims are modest, you can accomplish an awful lot. When your aims become elevated beyond a reasonable level, you not only don’t accomplish much, but you can cause a great deal of damage….

Foundations in this country have passed up enormous opportunities to do good, simply because…no one was satisfied with doing a little; everyone wanted to do a lot.

Second, Kristol urges: Do what’s achievable, and work with beneficiaries who are ready for a changed life. Too many donors, he warns, insist that

“we want to help those who are really down at the bottom.” But helping those at the bottom is not easy, whereas helping those who are moving up is feasible. It works.

If you suggest such a program you are accused of something called “skimming the cream,” namely, taking the most able, the most intelligent, the most ambitious, and moving them up while neglecting the rest. But that is the normal way in which all groups move into the mainstream of American life…. You begin by moving up those who can be moved up. Their brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, see them moving up and begin to foresee that it’s possible. They begin to shape their lives and their habits to follow them.

The notion that you go directly to the hard-core unemployable…who are “hard-core” for a reason, is utopian…. The notion that you can…transform them overnight into willing and eager students is childish…. It would be enormously expensive, and in the end you would just be helping a few individuals. The more sensible approach is to…help those who wish to be helped, who can be helped, who are already motivated…others will follow in their path.

Do what is doable…. You then get the kind of progress in education, or in the economy, or what have you, which brings everyone into the system.

Third, Kristol warns: Don’t get absorbed into the government blob.

There is a tendency these days for everything to become an adjunct to government, just as there is a tendency, when foundations have a good idea, for government to take it and run away with it…. So you end up with another government agency doing, in its bureaucratic way, what neighbors were doing in a very pleasant and humane way….

To the degree that our society becomes more centralized, to the degree that government becomes more intrusive in all the affairs of our lives…foundations are going to be assimilated into government.

There are many ways to elevate America

I would extend Irving Kristol’s advice with one more practical warning: When you are deciding where you want to apply yourself as a philanthropy-patriot, don’t overlook what C. Z. Nnaemeka has referred to as the “unexotic” needy. Yes, Kenyans without clean water, heroin addicts, high-school dropouts, AIDS victims, homeless children—these people need charitable help. But their needs are already much proclaimed. There are other less exotic needy persons being overlooked and underserved. Older people let go from jobs. Veterans languishing in our dysfunctional disability system. Single mothers in rural areas. It’s important that donors not move as a trendy pack. Methodically seek out citizens in your universe who need help and aren’t receiving it.

And one last thing for public-spirited philanthropists to bear in mind: Those of you whose philanthropic passions are unrelated to deep social reform shouldn’t feel like there is less purpose in what you do. Don’t imagine that only philanthropists who support think tanks, heal wounded soldiers, restore the Lincoln Memorial, or fight Zika are serving the nation. There are thousands of ways to elevate America.

It isn’t just grand national projects that improve our society. Simple charitable comforts, direct personal assistance, art that inspires, soothing parks, spiritual faith that brings healing, underwriting for local pillar institutions—these traditional charitable priorities are vital contributions to making our nation good. Money spent effectively on kindness, truth, beauty, and moral uplift can be every bit as therapeutic for individuals—and for a country—as money spent on medical care and job training and schooling.

Donors and volunteers can be proud of any well-aimed contributions that make people happier and healthier, and strengthen our communal life. So don’t feel limited by rigid boundaries when pursuing social improvement and culture change

The key is just to take a part. To contribute directly. To act—rather than waiting for some distant, divided, impersonal agency to solve our problems for us.

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