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

To read the first half of this essay, click here.

Most Recent Successes

So in earlier eras where American society desperately needed reform that our political system was unable to deliver, many necessary culture changes came through civil action fueled by philanthropists. Do we have any reasons to think those successes could be repeated today?


Fred Cuny was a larger-than-life Texas engineer and charitable entrepreneur who used money donated by George Soros to save lives in Bosnia more effectively than all the material assistance offered by national governments plus the U.N. combined. (image: Judy Walgren)

The fact is, philanthropists have continued in much more recent years to step into breaches in performance by public agencies, offering vital alternate repairs through private action.

  • It is philanthropy and civil society that provided the most helpful new ideas for improving American schooling over the last generation, sparking real and desperately needed education reform. 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, Huntington’s disease, and schizophrenia.
  • Givers inaugurated the Green Revolution, attacked tropical diseases, invented and spread microlending, promoted individual land ownership for peasants, and shielded developing-world entrepreneurs from government stultification—the most effective series of moves of the last generation to reduce misery in poor countries.
  • Amidst gross underperformance by government job-training programs, philanthropy is demonstrating effective ways to move hard-to-employ Americans like the homeless, released prisoners, disabled persons, recovering addicts, and so forth into the labor force for the first time.
  • 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.
  • 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 led the way to constructive win-win solutions for locales ranging from Rhode Island to Detroit to Utah.


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.

And there are reasons to expect that the kind of philanthropic assists to governance described above can be multiplied in the future. New entrepreneurial tools are coming into use in philanthropy. Things like randomized control trials that improve assessment capabilities, new mechanisms such as charitable limited liability corporations, fresh methods like investing as a supplement to grantmaking, and so forth. These are increasing the bandwidth and culture-changing power of philanthropy.

In addition, there is room today for us to increase the long-stagnant share of our national income devoted to charitable reform. If Americans half a century ago were able to put 2 percent of their income into philanthropy, with today’s much greater standard of living and level of discretionary income we should be able to touch 3 percent or more without discomfort. That would represent hundreds of billions of additional charitable dollars every year.

A wish list for next steps

Where might a social entrepreneur make a contribution today? 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 willing to put their minds, shoulders, and checkbooks to the task could be enormously helpful to America over the next decade or so.

  • 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 today 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 of 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.
  • Energetic 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 religious supports are available?
  • 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 the disabled 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 train and re-train the large number of Americans who are stuck in jobs that can’t support their families, are clinging by their fingernails to positions likely to disappear in the future, or have already dropped out of the labor force. 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 and inspire 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—allowing some workers to support their family at a middle-class level for the first time, while simultaneously building technical and service skills that are badly needed by our economy.
  • 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.


A new bloom of microgovernance

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.


Many effective nonprofits like Goodwill (which provides billions of dollars of training and work experience every year to hard-to-employ Americans) are highly decentralized. The Goodwill network is made up of 163 autonomous regional affiliates, each with its own board, and funding, and methods. (image: The Pueblo Chieftain)

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.

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 practice so we can see which nostrums are actually good for human flourishing over an extended period, and which are snake oil.

This is not wishful thinking. Localized responses to human needs are what philanthropic entrepreneurs create all the time. The last two or three decades brought an explosion of private solutions to public problems, resulting in many triumphs. The thousands of dispersed social reforms documented in the recently published Almanac of American Philanthropy occurred in almost every sector of U.S. society, at a pace that accelerated during recent years.

Localized service is now sweeping American business as well. The Marriott company, for instance, has spawned more than 30 separate lodging operations that can provide different customers with what they need, where they are, in personalized ways. Not just Marriott Hotels, but Fairfield Inn and Suites, Courtyard by Marriott, SpringHill Suites, Ritz-Carltons, Renaissance Hotels, ExecuStay, Westins, Four Points, Aloft, Le Méridiens, W Hotels, and many more. The Internet revolution, wikis, crowdsourcing, and other bottom-up mechanisms have demonstrated the inventive power of dispersed authority and resources, and the problem-solving capabilities of small actors linked in networks. Philanthropy—with its longstanding tradition of local, custom, personal solutions—is now closely in step with wider trends in American society, technology, and economy.

Curing alienation and hunger

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. Micro-governance will yield a stronger sense of having a voice and active role in the direction of our communities. It will reduce the feeling among Americans of being bossed or coerced.

Letting a thousand flowers bloom, instead of trying to do everything in one standardized way, could turn one of today’s most worrying weaknesses—our polarization—into something useful. Let all of those very different Americans try different ways of fixing problems in their own communities. Then look hard at which work and which fail. Expand the successes and walk away from the disappointments.

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.” Philanthropic/voluntary solutions will be gentler and more respectful of dissenting perspectives than even the smallest-scale government/mandatory monopoly fixes.

Dispersed governance through civic action can thus help cure the popular unrest seen in the political candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and today’s wider frustration with politics. It’s not healthy that more than two thirds of all Americans now consistently say our country is on the wrong track. 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.”

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. Thomas Jefferson called for a society “where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic…and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”

When Alexis de Tocqueville studied America’s thousands of charitable groups almost 200 years ago, what impressed him was not just their ability to meet practical needs, but also the way they allowed citizens to govern themselves, solving local problems through the actions of local civil society. An American “teaches himself about the forms of government by governing.… It is fair to say that the people govern themselves.” Empathy for other citizens also grows out of the personal contact of civic association. “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another,” says Tocqueville.

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.”

“This is the issue of this election: 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.

We need a blizzard of local philanthropic campaigns today that attack societal problems in a range of ways. And 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, fight Zika, or sponsor other grand national projects are improving our society. There are thousands of ways to elevate America. Simple charitable comforts, direct personal assistance, support for local education, 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 and healthy and unified.

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.

Philanthropic micro-governance is a practical way for us to uncover new paths to progress and solve cultural ills that are gnawing at our national fiber. It can answer even the stiffest social challenges, as donors and volunteers have demonstrated over and over in the past.

And at the very same time, grassroots civic action will reduce the toxic feeling among many Americans that they have no say in how their communities are run. Muscular, inventive philanthropy can serve as a desperately needed antidote to today’s political alienation—which could otherwise leave many of our citizens feeling hopeless and angry for years to come.

Karl Zinsmeister is the creator of The Almanac of American Philanthropy. This is part two of an essay adapted from his new short book What Comes Next? How Private Givers Can Rescue America in an Era of Political Frustration, just published by The Philanthropy Roundtable, and available on Amazon. 

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