Today’s interview is with William Schambra, director of Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Bill is definitely the most controversial person I’ve featured in the podcast series, a fact that you’ll need to know to follow the comments that I’m sure will be coming. Part of what gets certain people’s juices flowing is Schambra’s conservative political views. The Bradley Center is widely considered a “conservative” think tank and Schambra was a senior advisor and speechwriter to Attorney General Edwin Meese under President Ronald Reagan. During the 2007 Council on Foundations conference, Schambra gave a speech (which I wrote about here) in which he readily acknowledged his political “outsider” position relative to the leanings of most of the audience.
Bill Schambra is a controversial figure. Certain bloggers have been waiting with baited breath to take a swing at him in the follow up discussion that will be occurring shortly (Bill will be responding to questions and comments in the Comments section at the end of this post). One writer advised me “Don’t wimp out, Sean. Either you play Bill or he plays you. That is his job.” Here’s my approach to these interviews; I think that verbal combat is an important element of the fire that forges better ideas. But I want that verbal combat to center around the ideas that are under discussion, not the people who voice the ideas. So let’s have at it. Bill sets forth a damning argument that strikes at the very heart of how philanthropy is practiced. He questions the concept that foundations in particular, or any philanthropic enterprise, can ever solve the root cause of most problems. Give it a listen, ask your questions, make your arguments and we’ll see if we can’t all come out the other side a little better for our efforts.
Make sure to enter the Comments section at the bottom of this post to follow along with and participate in a follow up conversation with Bill.
Expand this post using the link below to read the transcript.
Sean Stannard-Stockton: Hello, and welcome to the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. I’m Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog, and Principal and Director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital. My guest today is Bill Schambra. Bill is the Director of Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
Good morning, Bill. Thanks for taking the time out of your day to speak with us.
Bill Schambra: Well, thank you, Sean, for the opportunity to talk to you.
Sean: Why don’t you begin by telling us about the mission of the Bradley Center and how you became the Director?
Bill: All righty. Well, I came to the idea of the Bradley Center after working at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee for 10 or 11 years. And in the course of working for the foundation, I came to the conclusion that an awful lot of philanthropic dollars were wasted in the United States. Not wasted in the way that we usually think of, as sort of pursuing superficial charity, but wasted in the sense of pursuing big ideas that were ill-thought through and didn’t pan out.
And then people, at the end of some substantial experiments, never properly looked at what they were doing and came up with the kind of evaluation that would allow them to do things differently in the future. So when I left the Bradley Foundation in–what was it–2001, I came to the Hudson Institute, and they were kind enough to fund what became the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
Sean: All right. You used the word “wasted,” and the effectiveness of foundations and effective philanthropy in general, is always a hot topic. It’s something we discuss on the Tactical Philanthropy blog on a regular basis. Last year, in an opinion piece published in “The Chronicle of Philanthropy,” you called for the creation of an “Office of Second Thoughts.” Specifically, at the Gates Foundation, but the implication was this concept needed to be at all foundations, or at many of the large ones. Can you tell us a bit about your thinking in this area?
Bill: Yeah. Well, I think, in terms of measuring effectiveness–as you say, that’s a very hot topic today. And there are no shortages of experts and techniques and schools of thought about measuring the effectiveness of philanthropy and the programs they support.
But what concerns me is not so much the effectiveness of specific programs, but the larger question of effectiveness in philanthropy, the sort of pursuing grand ideas, marshaling millions of dollars in collaborations behind these magnificent experiments that go on five years and that sort of slowly peter out, and no one ever looks at it and says, “Well, that was really a dumb idea. [laughs] Why did we ever think that was going to work?”
There’s a kind of a conspiracy of silence when it comes to some of these grand failures. It’s not something that you can detect with sort of the micro-measurements that have become part of the trade in philanthropy. It’s something that you really [indecipherable] and say, “You know, boy, we’re really on the wrong track. We’re on the wrong track in a big way.”
And that’s sort of what I had in mind when I was suggesting that a foundation could benefit from something like an Office of Second Thoughts, or what other people call ombudsman–what, in newspaper language, is a public editor.
Like all of us, newspapers end up sometimes focusing on a story and carrying it to the bitter end, and afterwards, they kind of slap themselves on their foreheads and say, “You know, we really got carried away with this, and we really did sort of pursue this past the point of appropriateness.” And the public editor looks at that kind of reporting and says, “Well, you should’ve done it differently. You should’ve…”
And a foundation, I think, could benefit from this kind of thing. I mean, once a foundation has bought into a way of doing things, it tends to focus monomaniacally on that approach, and it tends only to talk to people who agree with that approach. Certainly, anyone they fund to do this project, to carry out this approach, they’re so committed to it that they never [indecipherable] what’s going on.
And the result is, down the line, that a lot of money is spent. And they would’ve benefitted from kind of an overview from 30,000 feet, somebody saying, “Boy, you know, this was just really one of three ways of looking at this problem. We should’ve thought this through a bit more carefully.” So that’s the sort of thing I had in mind by an Office of Second Thoughts.
Well, I was going to say, in the case of Gates, in particular, the Gates Foundation–or really, any foundation committed to very particular technical approaches, and medical approaches, to human problems, they often end up… And this is a criticism that one has heard about the Gates approach in particular. You end up pursuing the kind of technological fix, without understanding that it’s all occurring in the context of some larger political and economic and social and cultural values that need to be taken into account, and that ends up sometimes counteracting or defying the effects of what you’re trying to do. And that’s the sort of consideration that an ombudsman or an Office of Second Thoughts could bring to bear on what you’re doing.
Sean: It seems like we’ve had a couple examples recently of foundations doing what you suggest. Namely, the Irvine Foundation’s “Midcourse Corrections” report, and Hewlett’s “Hard Lessons.” Assuming you’ve read those, or if you’re familiar with them, is this kind of what you’re talking about, or is this maybe not going in the right direction?
Bill: Well, the very helpful report that I’m most familiar with along these lines, the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore pursued something called New Beginnings, if I recall correctly. They invested over five or I think it’s five years something like $55-million dollars in several cities or in the country to achieve certain kinds of results with young people in high schools.
They had these grand theories about how this money was going to coordinate services for young people and they were going to have which significant reductions and teen pregnancy and career aspirations and whatnot, and it turned out, you know, the $55-million dollars disappeared and really, they had very little to show for it.
What they did, what the Casey Foundation to their eternal credit did was to commission this report and was to take a look at what had happened and their publication, it was called “Lessons learned the hard way” or was it, like them not exactly the name of the report but it was a very nice report and that it did in fact come to grips with that failure. But an awful lot of foundations, and we’ve named now, three reports out of the 300,000 initiatives that had been undertaken in the last 20 years by foundations.
We’ve named a handful of reports that have actually done the sort of thing, that kind of in-depth analysis and rethinking and that’s it. There’s precious little of that going on and that’s a real shame, that’s a real shame.
Sean: Whether any of these foundations make mid-course corrections or not, in general they’re focusing on root causes and during the 2007 Council on Foundation’s conference, you gave a speech where you, you’ve said this other places as well, criticized philanthropy’s focus on dealing with root causes. But a lot of people define philanthropy as the dealing with root causes and derisively use the word “charity” to define dealing with general symptoms as opposed to causes. Can you tell us a little bit why you think the root-cause approach is all wrong?
Bill: Well, the root cause approach sounds so good and we’ve now talked about root causes for over a century. I mean, the first person to describe the difference between philanthropy and charity is the difference between dealing with root causes versus [symptoms], was John D. Rockefeller himself. So this is back in the 1890s. So we’ve had over a hundred years of experience with this approach.
The essence of which is, you know you pursue a solution to a problem until you figure out the real source of it and you tinker with that and you change it once and for all. And thereby you really help that problem in a decisive way so that charity, the charitable approach to that problem, no longer becomes necessary. So you can dispense with charity, save money, move on to the next problem.
As I say, it sounds like a terrific idea but it just hasn’t happened that way. I mean I would be hard pressed to name a single social problem. Now certainly in the area of medicine and public health, foundations had some success, the Rockefeller Foundation went on of course, famously, through its sanitary commission, attacked hookworm in the South and did a terrific job getting rid of it. But you’ve seen absolutely no similar experience in the area of social problems, nothing that foundations, no approach the foundations have tried in that area, have really penetrated to the root cause of a problem and removed it once and for all from the public agenda.
Sometimes the search of root causes has had some pretty evil effects as well. I mean you have the experience in the 20s and 30s, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations spent some money pursuing what they thought was a very promising science of eugenics, which was the effort to trace human problems to the root cause of bad genes, you know, bad genetics. If you could just fix that problem, then a lot of disease and social problems would disappear, in their view.
So that the answer was, you know, it was two-fold; it was to encourage the genetically superior to reproduce and it was to encourage the genetically inferior to not reproduce. If that meant sterilization and isolation, solitary confinement for people who were supposedly, genetically inferior, then that was fine.
This was a cause that foundations, these early progressive foundations, avidly supported and the notion of second thoughts, I think, would have been very valuable in this area. But so far are we from that kind of fundamental thinking about what we’re doing that you would look at the foundation histories, in vain, for even a mention of eugenics, that kind of very badly misfiring approach.
This is at a time incidentally, when our ability through genetic science, to substantially alter the human character and the human body, you know, we have more capacity in that area then ever. It would be a very good time for us to think about how, for foundations, to become involved in exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of that. But they’re so blind to their own past that they don’t even realize that eugenics was once a popular philanthropic cause.
Sean: OK, I want to change direction a little bit here and quote from a speech that you gave to the Maine Association of Non-profits recently and you said, “Consider for instance, the way we have increasingly incorporated the language and techniques of the business world into the non-profit sector. We all need a business plan. We should call contributions investments. We need to be more entrepreneurial. We need to focus more in generating revenue. Now all this is fine up to a point, but if it means that the non-profit sector comes to view it’s functions simply as delivering goods and services more efficiently and less expensively to customers, then we’ve lost our way. Civil society isn’t about customers, it’s about citizens.”
Now, this concept of the pros and cons of for-profit business models and non-profit models has generated a huge debate on the Tactical Philanthropy blog. It seems to me that while non-profits should not simply adopt for-profit business models, business logic can be used to improve the non-profit sector. Do you disagree with that?
Bill: My understanding of the non-profit sector starts with the notion that the non-profit sector is the place where citizens enter public life, try to understand their own social, political, cultural problems and come up with their own solution to those problems. That’s where it starts. It’s not about the non-profit sector as I would like to think of it, it’s a sector where services are delivered, one way or the other, whether they are business services or government, you know, whether there is an economic profit or whether it’s government services.
It’s primarily a place where citizens learn the difficult business of self-governance and that primarily is a matter of trial and error of a rather amateurish and clumsy sort of a tackling of their own problems their own way. I think there’s nothing wrong with that and in fact I think that’s the glory of civil society.
Foundations in so far as they are constantly pushing non-profits to be more efficient, more business-like, to rely on trained expertise rather than on amateurs and volunteers, I think that’s a very dangerous trend for civil society because it tends to take the sphere of public life where people do learn to do difficult business of self-governance and take it out of the hands of citizens and put it in the hands of trained experts.
I don’t think efficiency, I don’t think expert delivery of services is the proper standard by which to evaluate civil society. It is citizenly engagement and that is necessarily a messy, duplicative, amateurish business. It involves reinventing the wheel. I mean you constantly hear people say, “Gee, you know, let’s find the best practices so that non-profits don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.” There’s something to be said for reinventing the wheel. That’s how citizens learn how to govern themselves right. They learn; each generation has to learn anew, the lessons of self-governance.
So I think there’s a vast amount of messiness, and amateurism, and the sloppiness, if you will, that characterizes civil society and should characterize civil society and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sean: OK Bill, I have one last question for you. I gather that you’re a pretty active reader of the philanthropy blogs and you’ve reached out by email to a couple of bloggers that I know, but you’ve voiced your disappointed to me in the past that bloggers have not made more use of the various publications and speeches available on the Bradley Center website and I am particularly interested in how the online and offline conversation about philanthropy can be connected.
Do you have any suggestions for how the online philanthropy conversation can engage participants who do not regularly read or write blogs?
Bill: Yeah, I think what I meant to you in that comment, we at the Bradley Center, we try to have panel discussions about once a month on matters that are agitating philanthropy in the non-profit sector.
I think my major complaint about the sector and this is something that bloggers are beginning to write, is that we really don’t have enough of this kind of lively conversation about some fundamental issues in the sector. I mean we sort of fall into patterns like ‘measurement is good’ and ‘efficiency is the goal’ and we need outcome-based results; those kinds of easy sort of formulaic answers to questions. And we don’t have a serious conversation about them, which is what I tried to do at Bradley Center with our panels and which I, you know I think you guys are doing this well.
Now one of my panels recently, I actually put together after reading some blogs on this question of aligned investing, you know the Gates Foundation recently came under fire for investing in companies that the Los Angeles Times, I think it was, alleged, the corporations in which they were investing were undertaking practices that actually were undoing the results of their grant making. The paper suggested that it might be better for them to kind of take, you know, to re-examine their investments with that in mind, and Allison Fine, a blogger, had some thoughts on that, as did Lucy Bernholz.
So I actually had Allison and Lucy here for a panel on that, with a couple of folks who were skeptical, shall we say, to the investing on the other side and I noticed that GiftHub, Phil Cubeta, was you know, was properly appreciative of the fact that I had composed a panel out of a conversation that had begun on the blogs.
I suppose there are ways that I can try to figure out how to take my panels and have blog discussions attached to them as well, which is I think something you suggested to me, but we’re technologically backward, shall we say. I am not quite sure how to do that. We do need to do more than that.
Sean: There is just as much need I think for bloggers to find ways to have offline conversations rather than demanding everybody get with the tech bandwagon and do everything online.
Bill, thank you so much and that’s all the time we have. This has been the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. You can visit us at TacticalPhilanthropy.com. For more information about Bill Schambra and the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civil Renewal, visit pcr.Hudson.org.
Rather than pointing out that foundations were into eugenics 80 years ago (they weren’t the only ones), could you give examples of places today where you’d like to see them less obsessed with “root causes?” I ask partly because I find your critique of “root causes” really hard to follow/evaluate when the only examples you give are from a long time ago and easy to criticize in hindsight – and partly because I’m genuinely curious about the biases of existing major foundations (since I know nothing about what they do).
Question 2: I don’t follow your critique of “expertise” at all. Do you really think that the purpose of the voluntary sector is to “learn the difficult business of self-governance”? For what purpose? Do you see nonprofit as a training ground for entering politics? Seems to me that nonprofit work is about as different from political work as can be – one involves striking compromises, the other involves spending money that comes from a single passionate group (or from the interest on a fund given 50 years ago by one person). Most of our politicians started in either business or, well, politics – not nonprofit. I just don’t see how or why you think nonprofit is about “learning self-governance” at all.
And more to the point – that seems like a really myopic view of nonprofit, that it exists for the volunteers and workers to have a learning experience. I think it exists to serve the people in the most need, just as business exists to serve the rest of us. If we thought of business as a “training ground,” our economy would be in miserable shape – seems your attitude would do the same to the needy.
Sorry for the long question – this whole line of reasoning is basically incomprehensible to me, and I may have misinterpreted it. In a nutshell – how and why do you think the nonprofit sector’s purpose is “learning self-governance,” rather than helping people in need?
Bill, it seems your argument against root cause philanthropy rests on the assumption that the eradication of a social problem is the only test of progress. Certainly there are many social problems that have diminished over the past 100 years. Issues like civil rights, racism, access to education, awareness around environmental issues, and malnutrition in the United States are all areas in which the country has made progress. I won’t try and draw connection to specific foundation work for each area (because that is beyond my area of expertise), but all of these are areas that foundations have worked on.
So since we have made progress in so many issue areas that philanthropy has focused on, it seems to me that your test for foundation work must be either that 1) they eradicate a problem or 2) that they figure out how to draw specific connection between their efforts and specific decreases in issue areas. The first seems a pretty high test and the second has proved to be very difficult to measure, just as most cause and effect relationships in the social sciences in general have proved hard to measure.
You were reading my mind. The alleviating “root causes” test seems flawed. One, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of progress. Two, it ignores the likelihood that lessons might be learned that can be applied to ongoing efforts to attack root causes. Three, it suggests that there’s a time by which all these problems must be solved or all judged a failure.
First, I appreciate your doing this podcast, Sean, and preparing a transcript of it. In all honesty, I appreciate less your restricting the “verbal combat” to the ideas under discussion, as if it were possible or even practical to interpret a man’s words independently of his intentions, as if Austin, Searle, and Grice had never existed, as if everything we know about Bill Schambra and the work of the Bradley Center is to be left at the door like some potentially explosive device. Bill is no China doll; he can hold his own in any discussion. And nobody in this circle of bloggers is going to be a boor. It’s ironic that one of Bill’s major complaints about the sector is the lack of “lively conversation.” Well nothing kills my appetite for lively conversation more quickly than having someone shush me before I even say a word. This is your blog, you have every right, but it does cast a pall over things, and it’s a real disappointment to me personally.
As for the “ideas under discussion,” I urge readers to closely examine Bill’s texts and those commissioned by the Bradley Center to better understand the ideas and concerns that motivate them. Those ideas and concerns are very much absent from this podcast. I also urge readers to read the critiques of those texts, coming mostly from bloggers and from the non-conservative interlocutors that Bill invites to sit on his Bradley Center panels. Read closely, to take one example, an earlier op ed by Schambra on the Gates Foundation, where he warns his readers that the forces of law and good order “may not be so complaisant about philanthropy’s license” if it “drift[s] carelessly and inadvertently into … a revolutionary undertaking.” Think about what that means. What revolutionary undertaking is he referring to? Why would Mr. Schambra be motivated to write that? Then compare that with the light slap on the wrist he gives Gates in your podcast for not “understanding that it’s all occurring in the context of some larger political and economic and social and cultural values that need to be taken into account.”
It’s hard to keep to the ideas under discussion when they’re cast adrift from their moorings. What we have instead, if I may summarize, are the bald claims that (1) some foundations made some (allegedly) big mistakes, (2) some foundations admitted their mistakes, (3) some foundation attempts to address underlying causes didn’t pan out, (4) metric schmetrics, and (5) let’s have more lively discussions.
Albert – what I’ve seen of Bill hasn’t made it quite clear to me why you (and Phil) are so opposed to his work. But then, I’ve seen very little. I scanned the op-ed you linked, and only the last three paragraphs hinted at any agenda beyond “promoting accountability” (and they only hinted). Rather than asking us to peruse all the essays at the Bradley Center, could you please help us more quickly get rid of the hinting and implying and explain what you think IS relevant about Mr. Schambra’s work?
Bill, thank you for all of us for joining the blog conversation with your work at Hudson. As an agent provacateur, or controversialist, in your own right, your style fits perfectly with the contentiousness and comraderie of the wide open blog debate. I hope we can keep it going.
My question, if you wish or are willing to address it, is really about the role of the think tank, left, right or center, in the manufacturing of consent, or the creation of a civil society or an informed polity.
You are so eloquent about civil society, and the self reliant citizen, in your words above, that I truly kindle, and want to embrace exactly what you said, about learning to be citizens in the sloppy world of small scale local voluntary associations. Toqueveille. What I don’t see, though, is how wealthy people hiring thinkers to make their case for them, to basically manufacture ideology for them, as well as ghost write legislation, is conducive to democracy. It seems clean contary to it. At least it seems to conflict with our commitment to democracy from the bottom up, in your vision of small voluntary associations of amateurs.
I am sure you have thought about this, as a student of political theory, a citizen, an employee of a think tank and human being.
Can you defend the think tank as an institution? As a nonprofit? Funded with tax deductible dollars?
If the question can’t be answered as posed, without biting the hand that feeds you, or betraying secrets, or having a mental breakdown, and confessing your sins in public, please reshape it, or answer by indirection, through a fairy tale, parable, or dumbshow.
Hope my question makes you smile. We do appreciate your willingness to participate in this kind of free-wheeling interchange. I don’t judge you as a human being. Whatever you have done, I have done worse and for less money.
Albert (and anyone else thinking about asking a question), my suggestion that people’s questions focus on the ideas under discussion is not meant to limit the discussion. You can ask anything you want. However, you could easily frame Bill as a “political operative” and use that as your reference point for asking questions. I would prefer that the questions use the frame of Bill as a philanthropy commentator.
When asking me questions, you could frame me as a father, or as an investment professional or any number of other ways. But since this blog is about philanthropy, I expect people to approach me from the philanthropy frame.
I’m just asking that rather than asking Bill questions that frame him as a political persona, you look at this as an opportunity to see him in the philanthropy frame. Obviously there is overlap. For some people they can’t be separated.
Thanks for that clarification, Sean.
Holden: You say implying, I say inviting (you say po-tay-toe, …).
There are many Bradley Center theses I object to, but I was always taught to hate the sin and love the sinner—so this is nothing personal. I’ve met Bill many times, and despite our philosophical differences we still manage to work within five blocks of one another. If I had a teenaged daughter, I’d be glad for her to date his teenaged son. Also, as my colleague Bruce Trachtenberg has pointed out, my blogging career would be even less inspired than it already is without Bill. What else is there to discuss that’s of any interest?
The specific theses I have objected to are: (1) nonprofits generally patronize the poor; (2) contemporary Liberals are, for the most part, unprincipled, conniving, godless iconoclasts; (3) foundations should not be in the business of political advocacy or of funding political advocacy (broadly interpreted); (4) because foundations focus too much on finding root causes, they don’t generally fund direct services for the poor; and (5) foundations shouldn’t concern themselves at all with the underlying (root)causes of poverty. We can also debate some of the claims the Center makes through its conservative interlocutors, like for example, the claim that “Today social science has retreated into the academy, where it proceeds more like a cult – identifying villains, dispensing arcane knowledge about the world, and yearning for the good old days of welfarism and peace marches – than an enterprise dispensing useful knowledge about the world,” and other such nonsense.
But that’s my point. These kinds of claims, their implied and explicit ideological alignments, the questions about who funds their production and why—never seem to penetrate the surface of our discussions, mired as we are in the same old twaddle about metrics, transparency, etc. What is it that makes conservative philanthropy “conservative” for godssake? Why bother speaking with Bill if his concerns are exactly the same as those of non-conservatives? Why bury what’s most interesting about him?
Should we challenge so-called liberal philanthropy in the same way, along the same lines? Of course we should.
If I was that girl that reads body language on Billy O’s show, I would say that Mr. Schambra seems tired. Tired of what? Difficult to say without more data. But ala my role on Billy O’s show, I can be persuaded to speculate on what it could represent:
Remember, this is an art, not a science, and I am not that good an artist. But I could probably work a segment on Billy O’s show, given that I could stand the audacious drag and the inevitable passes from the “Commentator in Chief”.
I suppose I could warm up to that…
Should Bill be framed as scientific, disinterested, objective, etc? I think not. In fact, I believe he is committed to the view that philanthropy is inherently ideological, or value-laden, that it is in largest sense political, about the polis and a vision of the social and personal good, and that liberal claims to the contrary are mystified and disengenuous. I agree with him there.
The key “cultural event” taking place here is Bill’s willingness to come out from behind the podium and talk as a person among persons, rather than as speechifier. We need more of that.
“What do you do for a living?” “Who do you work for?” “What counts as winning in your work?” Those are perfectly legitimate questions when meeting someone, much less in trying to really understand the world of which they are a part. I am interested in how he himself would frame the work he is engaged upon. Does he see himself as a hired gun, a rhetor, an advocate, a point person for a conservative funding coalition’s “agenda,” or does he see himself as a disinterested and objective pursuer of knowledge? Or, does he see himself as a promoter of giving, one who inspires others to give and give wisely? How would he frame his work for funders to his work, and how does he frame it for the general public? Are these two frames aligned?
I would ask him these questions over drinks. I do hope he will be willing to just talk and be himself. He is among civic friends, as I am sure knows. Besides we all want to make sure he comes back and keeps the conversation going.
Phil, I agree with all of what you just wrote. But if I were Bill (or anyone) I wouldn’t sit down for drinks with someone who thought that they “either had to play me or I would play them.”
Obviously I’ve committed the cardinal sin of blogging, “thou shalt not ever attempt (or even appear to attempt) to censor anything or anyone”. My only intent is to try and hold a civil, yet spirited debate about philanthropy.
I hate watching the personal attack, gladiator debates that passes for news these days. I love listening to people asking hard questions and being forced to back up their claims.
The public commons should be messy in the way that Bill uses the phrase in the interview, not messy in the sense of rough justice or a knife fight.
Thanks, Sean, for recording the podcast, and thanks to everyone else for suffering through it. While I’m no longer writing speeches for a living, you can see that I’m still in the business of making other people seem eloquent.
There are three large issues raised by the commentators. First, root causes. For one hundred years, the major foundations have insisted that the essence of what they do is, as John D. Rockefeller, Sr. put it, to engage “in a search for finalities – a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source.” Charity just puts band-aids on problems; philanthropy, by contrast, gets to the core of the problem and solves it once and for all. Philanthropy thereby sets for itself a very high standard for achievement. It won’t be doing its job by its own lights if it just makes things a bit better in the world by making progress toward alleviating suffering or building useful institutions. It wants to cure evils at their source, or risk being accused of merely doing charity.
So here’s the problem: Where’s the list – and after one hundred years and billions of philanthropic dollars, it should be a pretty substantial one – of the social problems that philanthropy has solved once and for all? I don’t mean the list of good things that philanthropy has done, like children’s television and the stripe down the middle of the road. I mean problems that have been removed from the public agenda by the decisive action of philanthropy. Again, it’s a high standard, but one by which philanthropy itself insists that it is willing to live or die.
Now, getting at the root causes is what experts do. And over the past one hundred years, the experts have changed their minds often about how to get at root causes, from Rockefeller advisor Frederick Gates’ exalted notion that medicine will propagate “new moral laws and new social laws, new definitions of what is right and wrong,” to Rockefeller president Raymond Fosdick’s faith in the behavioral sciences to get at the psychological and sociological roots of human disorder, to today’s notion that philanthropy can only get at root causes if it challenges deep-seated structural inequities based on race, gender, and class. We’re entitled to experiment with an approach, conclude it doesn’t work, and move on to the next. But after one hundred years, isn’t it time to insist that we have something fairly significant to show for it? So where is that list? And if we aren’t going to get one pretty soon, wouldn’t it be better if philanthropy stopped denigrating modest, partial solutions and the nonprofits that pursue them, and admit that this is the best we can do – which is, by any fair account, pretty good?
Speaking of experts, we come to the second problem, civic engagement. Democratic self-government, it seems to me, is founded on the capacity of citizens to get together and come up with solutions to their own problems, according to their own political, moral, or spiritual principles. With today’s professionalization of so many social activities, including politics, that sort of civic engagement tends to occur chiefly within the nonprofit sector, if it occurs at all. Experts tend to look at this process with some disdain, of course, because it’s typically amateurish, sloppy, and superficial, in their view – based on false consciousness rather than expert knowledge. Foundations driven by expertise, as the large ones are, insist on ever higher standards of business-like efficiency and statistically measurable scientific precision from their nonprofit grantees. Increasingly, everyday citizens gathered in their store-front nonprofits need not apply. But when we go for root causes, we also opt for expert solutions. It’s sad that foundations all too often thereby undermine the civic engagement and democratic self-governance that, as part of civil society, they should be encouraging.
Finally, the larger political goals I’m personally pursuing by saying all this. No secret conspiracy here – I pretty much set out my intentions in a piece I did several years ago for the annual review of philanthropy published by the progressive-leaning National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The fact is that there are many strands of conservatism, as there are of liberalism. Some focus on preserving cultural traditions, some on stimulating free markets, some on preserving a strong national defense. I came across a brand of conservatism many years ago at the American Enterprise Institute concerned with preserving “mediating structures” – families, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, houses of worship, local community institutions. As I learned, these institutions were threatened both by the radically centralizing trends of the time, manifest in corporations as well as government, as well as by the radically atomizing trends of the time, manifest in the rise of radical libertarian individualism. Robert Nisbet, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Woodson, and others embraced this brand of conservatism, and so did I. As you can deduce, especially from its skepticism about unfettered individualism, this strand of conservatism faces challenges in making itself heard even within its own house.
But the left also has a strand, also not the strongest within its own ideological camp, that speaks to these concerns, from Ivan Illich’s and Harry Boyte’s critique of the disabling effect of the professions on democratic citizenship, to the concern with building or preserving strong local communities evidenced in the work of Wendell Berry, John McKnight, and the Industrial Areas Foundation. As I noted in the NCRP piece, it seemed to me that the decentralist left and right could make common cause on behalf of active democratic citizenship against the professionalizing, centralizing, anti-democratic tendencies of mainstream philanthropy. In the final analysis, of course, left and right may look to very different results from increased civic engagement, but I found in my years at the Bradley Foundation that every real-life nonprofit has a bit of conservative self-sufficiency and a bit of progressive activism in its mission. We can always quibble over allowable percentages of each, but right now it seems to me that the larger issue is the very survival of civic engagement in the face of corrosive centralization and equally corrosive atomistic individualism, and that our common concern about this might make it possible for us to put other differences aside.
Sorry for going on so long – so many good point to address.
The not-so-hidden agenda of “philanthropy should stop bothering with root causes” has two items prominently posted: first, that substantial sums of money shouldn’t be spent to critique capitalism (though substantial sums of money are spent to critique anything suggested to ameliorate its ills); second, that philanthropy should take as its sole business providing services to the needy, thereby relieving the government of that obligation. The second item bears a strong family resemblance to the neoconservatives’ idea of “starving the beast,” depriving government of resources through huge tax cuts so that it can no longer provide social services. Here, the recommendation is to starve the beast of philanthropy (by throwing its relative pittance into the bottomless hole of social need) so that it can no longer provide an independent voice about the direction of our society.
Thanks, Bill, for stopping by. (“Elvis is in the building.”) I appreciate your thoughtful responses. A few quick things:
There has never, ever been, to my knowledge, any serious attempt by any foundation of any size to “challenge deep-seated structural inequities based on race, gender, and class.” Ever. There’s been a skirmish here and a skirmish there, but the idea that any foundation has ever seriously challenged, with breadth and depth, the assumptions and the structures that tend to keep poor people poor and make rich people even richer, is simply preposterous. That really would be a case of the snake biting its own tail.
You suggest we admit “that this is the best we can do – which is, by any fair account, pretty good.” Well, pretty good by whose “fair account”? Since we both live in DC, I’d be happy to take you on site visits to neighborhoods filled with people who don’t share your rosy appraisal of the current situation. Let me know if you’re interested. We can share a coffee afterwards and debate whether or not their accounts were “fair.”
You say, that “[i]n the final analysis, … left and right may look to very different results from increased civic engagement.” 😀 This might be the one place we agree. As Woody Allen once observed, the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.
Things are getting clearer for me, and now I have more questions/comments for Mr. Schambra:
1. I think you are putting words in the mouths of the “root causes” people. You aren’t talking to John D. Rockefeller, Sr. You’re talking to people who believe that foundation money is well spent on political advocacy, as well as on “experts” (I personally fall into the second camp more often than the first one, but there are times for both). Advocacy and experts are ways of creating change, large and small. You aren’t striking these people down by pointing out that no huge social problems have been eliminated; you’re wrong that this is the standard your opponents must hold themselves to. The only thing they have to show is that advocating for legal change, and more generally funding “experts” to do thorough research and analysis, can be money well spent. Unless there’s a confusion here, and you actually agree with that and oppose only the people who insist, “Eliminate racism or bust.” If that’s the case, it would be good to clear it up, because the people screaming at you seem pretty convinced that you oppose philanthropic advocacy/expert-driven efforts in general.
2. Regarding favoring the small/local/amateur over the large/expert/specialized: do you feel the same way about business? Do you think that megacorporations are worse at what they do than mom & pop shops, or that there is a place for both? If you think megacorporations can do great work, how do you see the difference between serving the needy (what charities do) and serving everyone else (what corporations do)? Why should we keep the megacorporations and strike down the megacharities? On the other hand, if you think megacorporations are always inferior – perhaps there is something about the capitalist system that you too would like to tear down?
Um, what The Nonprofiteer said. This seems right.
Holden’s point #2, also.
(TNP/Holden I hope I have not reduced your status by agreeing with you. The only way I can remedy that, I suppose, is to agree with ALL of you — back to a level playing field! You can all be diminished by the same amount, and no stigmas will remain! Done!)
And the Woody Allen joke was funny. (He won’t care if I laugh at him.)
[T]his is the best we can do – which is, by any fair account, pretty good
“Not to worry,” says the dentist as he revs his drill, “This isn’t going to hurt me one little bit.”
One person’s root cause is another person’s corporate plum. “They are going after root causes, Bill, this could cost us big. Get out there and throw sand in their eyes. What am I paying you for?” Truth is that the root cause is unmentionable in polite company. Wealth Bondage. Cringe-worthy. There is no outside of Wealth Bondage. Both parties, bedecked with golden chains, compete to pretend it does not exist. They even put up a sign over the front door saying, “Freedom.”
Well, maybe the root cause of poverty is the shiftlessness of poor people. We can cure it by providing them with our own moral example. That seems about the extent of Bill’s alternative approach. If hypocrisy would cure poverty, it would have done so over the last 6 years.
And if philanthropy could do it, it would be illegal.
Is Mr. Schambra done here? I’d like to see his responses to my questions … granted, a lot of these comments don’t really seem to be directed at him.
Albert, I’d really like to take you up on the offer of a visit to local DC nonprofit groups that you admire. The thing I miss most about being a foundation program officer is regular contact with the grassroots groups and leaders the Bradley Foundation funded in Milwaukee: Family House, Day Care Advocates of Milwaukee, Harambee Community School, Latino Community Center, Holy Redeemer COGIC Social Services, Esperanza Unida, Lao Community Center. . . . As I’m sure you’ve found, this is at once the most depressing and most inspiring part of the job, and far too few program officers seek out the experience. I tried to reflect on this here, in a speech to the E.F. Schumacher Society, a collection of “small is beautiful” Berkshire organic farmers and alternative currency advocates who, I hope, found it more interesting than some country club Republicans I know. That’s what I meant earlier about making alliances around issues across ideological lines.
But it was in working with grassroots groups that my particular irritation with the root causes mantra was born. When I would try to talk other foundations into funding these groups, the response invariably was, “Hey, you’ve got some heart-warming stories, but, you know (slight sneer appearing on upper lip) we don’t do charity. We believe in tackling root causes.” It always sounded so muscular, so noble, and I always felt so foolish with my pitiful little “anecdote.” But over time, I came to realize what was going on. Almost invariably, some national foundation had blown into town, touting the latest grand theory from up to the University for solving – not alleviating, not making modest progress against – but solving the problem of urban economic development or low-income housing or inner city education. And it had talked the local foundations into being part of the six-city replication of their pilot program: “Don’t keep wasting your money on (sneer, upper lip) charity. Throw your pittance of an annual grant budget into this collaborative community consortium, and we’ll get to the root causes.”
Five years and millions of dollars later, the landlord was scraping the gilt lettering off the door of the consortium’s former office . . . and nothing, absolutely nothing had changed. But since so many professors, program designers, evaluators, and EDs of major nonprofits had in the meantime been paid so well, that no one, absolutely no one, would say anything. Meanwhile, the Friendship Club was still looking for a $10,000 grant to air-condition their facility, so they could use their upper room for AA and NA meetings in the summer. But that’s charity, and no sophisticated modern foundation – neither the large ones, nor the small, local ones staffed by upwardly mobile program officers who desperately want that “designed local replication of major national initiative” on their resumes – does charity.
That’s when I started to wonder about the root causes mantra, and begin asking around about the fruits of that approach. I’m still asking. The point isn’t that foundations don’t do good things even if they don’t always get to root causes. The point is they use the root causes mantra to say “no” to, and often humiliate, extremely worthwhile grassroots groups because they aren’t “solving” the problem, just “putting Band-aids” on it. But no one in philanthropy seems to want to grapple with the fact that foundations aren’t really solving problems either, just endlessly chanting that self-justification and hoping that no one looks behind the curtain.
Holden, you were wondering about my views of capitalism and megacorporations. I still bear scars from once suggesting that our culture was not bearing up well against “an unholy marriage between the marketplace and radical individualism,” and furthermore, that if I were I a citizen of a small town, I might be inclined to oppose the introduction of Walmart because of what it would do to the small businesses on Main Street. The libertarians at Reason magazine were not amused. But conservatives of a certain stripe are in fact acutely aware of the problems that capitalism poses for the survival of community institutions. Robert Nisbet noted in The Quest for Community that “Unfortunately, it has been the fate of [civic] institutions and relationships to suffer almost continuous attrition during the capitalist age.” The marketplace produces and celebrates a materialistic individualism which inevitably distracts the citizen from his civic obligations, and erodes the authority of family, church, and neighborhood, he warned. Capitalism’s tendency to produce a “sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity” left citizens easy prey to the appeal of totalitarianism, he cautioned, and it was “absurd to suppose that the rhetoric of nineteenth-century individualism will offset present tendencies in the direction of the absolute political community.”
But aside from any preference for small business over large when the community is endangered, I’d like to challenge the deeper assumption behind your question: that just as big corporations deliver goods more efficiently, so big nonprofits deliver services more efficiently, and so they should be preferred over small, grassroots groups. This too neglects the critical issues of community and citizenship. One of the problems in the nonprofit sector today is precisely our tendency to treat low-income individuals as passive, helpless clients of professional service-deliverers, rather than as active, capable citizens, able to come up with solutions to their own problems. (Again, a view common to Nisbet conservatives and IAF progressives.) As I suggested in the podcast, the current tendency in the sector to emphasize business-like efficiency to the exclusion of all else undermines one of its central purposes – to be a school for human agency and citizenship, especially for those at the margins of society with precious little clout in the marketplace or politics. Just as the corrosive over-emphasis on efficiency is a common failing of conservative and liberal philanthropists, I hope some liberals and conservatives might be able to join in prompting a countervailing movement toward civic engagement, however messy and inefficient might prove to be.
Everyone has their priorities; no one funds everything; and everyone competes for funding. The fact that some money has been diverted from charity to “root causes” isn’t proof that the “root causes” approach needs to be scrapped; I’m sure there are also anecdotes to be had of wonderful advocacy campaigns being ignored by people like me who said, “I don’t want my money going into some bureaucratic hole, I want it helping people.” Perhaps even with a sneer on the upper lip.
There have been “root cause” campaigns that amounted to something, and campaigns that amounted to nothing. The real question is, do you know of specific campaigns here and now (not defunct eugenics programs) that you’d like to see replaced? Or – do you have access to enough evidence to say that the entire foundation sector is skewed overly toward philanthropy as opposed to charity? (I would guess that this is the case – from what I’ve seen, foundations are almost exclusively focused on “root causes,” when their staff and evaluative capacity could be really well used for charity – but I don’t have any more than an impression. I’d hope that given how much experience you have and how devoted you are to this topic, you do.)
I also feel like my original “Question 2” (second comment here) remains unanswered. I don’t know whether you want the voluntary sector to exist for the volunteers or for those they’re serving.
The truly needy don’t just need civic engagement, they need basic stuff that the rest of us have gotten: a place to sleep, a place to be treated for illness (I don’t think you’d question the value of expertise in medicine?), and perhaps most importantly, a place to learn the things that the rest of us had solid access to: reading and writing skills, mathematics and logic, and all the other things that make such a huge difference in employment prospects. Figuring out where and how to provide these things is a matter of efficiency. Education, like medicine, is largely a field where what works doesn’t necessarily follow intuition, and expertise is relevant. Knocking this down in favor of small, “messy” efforts, it seems, would hurt the people charities are supposed to serve, perhaps while helping the people who work and volunteer for them.
Personally, I’m concerned about the local, amateur version of the tragedies you describe: a small program continuing to do its thing for decades or even centuries, without any real lasting positive impact on anyone. Lots of local organizations provide arts programs for youth. Do these help them at all in a lasting way? We have no idea. Unlike with the foundations, there’s no “cover-up” or willful ignorance of whether people are being helped. Instead (worse!), there’s never any effort to find out, because “we don’t have that sort of evaluative capacity” or “we’re doers, not thinkers.”
Thanks, Bill. I certainly share your deep regard for what some sneeringly refer to as “checkbook philanthropy” (it’s a subject I return to often in my blog; for example here and here). But bad grantmaking isn’t restricted to projects that have the elimination of root causes as their goal. Acts of charitable giving can also be done badly, as when a donor, for example, puts absurd restrictions on his gifts or makes the recipient jump through hoops.
If you indeed encountered a program officer who thought he could solve the problem of “urban economic development” in six cities, then I’ll join you in hooting and throwing rotten vegetables. With inspired leadership, a great deal of collaboration, and other resources, I do believe it’s possible for foundations and their partners to identify and address the underlying causes of poorly performing urban schools. Here I would point to successes in Boston and Chicago. While it’s a daunting goal, I don’t believe it’s out of reach.
You yourself have mentioned cases in which foundations have funded research that led to cures for diseases. I can adduce many other examples, giving the lie to your claim that “foundations aren’t really solving problems.” (Although in one sense what you say is true: foundations don’t solve problems, they fund others to solve them.)
The idea that persistent phenomena have persistent causes has a venerable pedigree. Foundation CEOs didn’t invent the notion. The problem isn’t in addressing root causes, it’s in not having the wisdom to distinguish between cases in which we have a good chance of improving the lives of people and cases in which we don’t. It’s not a problem of tactics, but of wisdom and humility.
Bill, during the interview you said, “There’s a kind of a conspiracy of silence when it comes to some of these grand failures.” I then asked, “It seems like we’ve had a couple examples recently of foundations doing what you suggest. Namely, the Irvine Foundation’s Midcourse Corrections report, and Hewlett’s Hard Lessons.” But you didn’t answer whether you thought these reports were on the right track.
One difficultly with tackling root causes is trying to measure the impact of what you are doing. These two reports are an attempt by two major foundations to actually examine their work and course correct in reaction to their review. Would you return to this question from the interview, comment on these two reports and share with us your opinion of them?
Thanks, Sean, for arranging this forum.
I’ve recently come to the realization that for any real change to occur one must attack one’s own position, genuinely put it at risk. This is a lesson I’ve not learned alone: the blog company I’ve kept has informed me well, concretely, and not over days, but full years.
So, Mr. Schambra, in the eyes of many, there is a bad actor among us. It is the prime mover of the world economy, which in turn drives the global culture, which culture comprises the polity, from which our leaders derive their power.
It feeds us all. Yet we must shun the teat, genuinely risk its withdrawal.
Can we ignore this “root cause” and still do “verbal combat” well?
Sean, I’d be happy to comment, but first I’ll have to read . . . umm, reread the reports, so it may take a while. Meanwhile, one of the most interesting discussions of a problematic community collaborative effort is to be found in the Spring 2006 issue of Responsive Philanthropy, published by NCRP. It featured a critique of community-based initiatives underway at the Northwest Areas Foundation, with comments by Native American groups who had been denied funding, as well as a response from foundation president Karl Stauber. A gutsy performance by all parties involved, and far shorter and more comprehensible than most formal evaluation efforts. You can find the report here.
Don’t blow out the lamp yet. Says Bill about evidence that foundations do not conspire to remain silent: “…first I’ll have to read…ummm, reread the reports so it may take a while.” Bill, how convenient. You make an accusation. Sean points out that you might be off base. You acknowledge you read the reports, but claim foggy memory. And, then say you’re obviously too busy to refresh your memory. It’s not just your memory that’s foggy. It’s the way you won’t own up to being wrong. Could that be the “root cause” of what makes other of your claims suspect?
Dear Mr. Books,
Unless you’re Bill’s assistant of someone else who might find your job in danger from your comments, I find no reason for you to remain anonymous. Doing so only makes it easy for others to dismiss your point. If you ARE someone who has real reason to hide your identity, that would make your comments far MORE interesting. But, that would require that you reveal yourself in some way that gives us context.
Otherwise most readers will simply assume, correctly or not, that you are simply “throwing rhetorical bombs while giggling in the background”.
Bill thank you for returning to continue the debate. Sean thank you for your civility, and for the touching belief that no gentleman ever plays another. That belief has been the downfall of what I would call effete liberalism. The proper response when played is not to panic, deny it, or erase it, but to play back and play better. That leads when done well from good manners through sophistry to art.
Bill I apologize for suggesting that you might “play” a dupe for a Fool. Play me. Play me please! This cramped civility is killing me. Let’s go to over to the Dumpster and settle this like bums in an alley, with eye-gouging, groin bashing, and leg-pulling allowed, then let’s spit out our teeth, and share a bottle of Thunderbird and a good laugh at the general public who don’t have any idea how the game of Think Tank Thuggery is played.
Civility – My God. Reminds me of that movie The Out of Towners. Jack Lemmon in a panic at night in Central Park accosting a man who carries a blackjack: “Exucse me Sir, we are from out of town…. Can you help me and my wife?”
(Sean, if you delete the comment, I will post elswhere. Then we can discuss how civility functions as repression and why. If Bill won’t play you, I will. How else can any of us learn the limits of our frameworks?)
I think that there are at least two ways in which the term problem can be taken. One sense involves harm, and the other sense involves a comparative difference. Absolute poverty -the inability to meet basic needs- would be of the first type and relative poverty –large income inequality- would be of the second type. I can imagine a state where there is no absolute poverty, but a great amount of relative poverty. I think that each type of problem requires different framing. Absolute problems are amenable to being solved (some with root cause solutions), but relative problems are not. Relative problems are amenable to description and possibly being explained more simply in terms of absolute problems. I think it is better to frame relative problems in asset based terms and build on existing strengths.
I think that government is primarily responsible for eliminating harm and that it should both treat symptoms and look for root cause solutions. I think that foundations do well by helping in these efforts both directly and through advocacy. To me the basic elements of positive human experience and building community include life, knowledge, purposefulness, friendship, play, and aesthetic experience. I think that the greatest potential impact of philanthropy lies more in the positive realm of building community.
“I think it is better to frame relative problems in asset based terms and build on existing strengths.”
Ex-squeeze me? 😉
Honestly, I don’t understand that, what does it mean?
I’m one of the “effete liberals” Phil mentions in his comment, but I still have to agree with him.
Bill’s desire to preserve “‘mediating structures’ – families, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, houses of worship, local community institutions” sweeps at least one of the big problems of communitarian thought under the rug: in conservative communities, gay people swing from the trees; in progressive communities, they don’t.
I use that as an illustration of how the commitments each of us brings to this discussion are hidden from view. We don’t confront Bill with the (possibly gay) elephant on the room: “You work on behalf of a conservative think tank. Social conservatives want to deny gay people basic human rights and deny women the right to an abortion; fiscal conservatives are often a bunch of tight-fisted sociopaths who don’t really care about the poor. How can you sleep with yourself at night, championing their cause, undermining their enemies—unless you’re one of them too? Do you really expect us to believe you’re a pariah to the conservatives, as you intimate?*”
It’s not about “preserving mediating structures,” as Bill suggests. It’s about what that ultimately means for gay people, black people, women, poor people, Muslims.
When Bill goes in for his annual performance review, how is he judged? Who’s paying whom to say what and why? What’s the cost to society of an organization that’s in the business of manufacturing consent for very powerful interests?
*For example, when Bills says that “[t]he libertarians at Reason magazine were not amused” by his critique of unfettered capitalism—bad conservative! Bad!
Hi Stuart. The reason why Bill likes to tweak the libertarians at Reason is because he’s probably a conservative in the Kirkian mode. Russell Kirk, who was also from the upper midwest, disparaged unfettered individualism and markets, and had disdain for hardcore libertarians and objectivists. Crunchy.
The mission statement of the Hudson Institute, of which the Bradley Center is a part, is not transparent about the conservative values that animate its work. Compare it with the mission statement of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, where the commitment to helping low- and moderate-income people is clearly stated.
So we’re left wondering—at least I am—what’s really behind Bill’s antipathy to what he calls “root causes philanthropy”? I think the Nonprofiteer’s assessment (above) is probably accurate; WCT bloggers have argued as much here and here.
When I attended the Bradley Center Symposium, What’s the Big Idea?, a while back, I heard Francis “End of History” Fukuyama, Charles “Bell Curve” Murray, and other stars in the conservative firmament speak and I thought, “OK, this is the range of views the Bradley Center represents. Eeuuw.” The connection between what they were saying at the podium and what I knew of their ideological commitments was clear. The claws were out.
I think, Bill, you try to make it sound as if this root causes thing were about good sense and compassion for people like Cordelia Taylor. I believe that’s a smoke screen. It might be about that too, but isn’t it mostly about the fear conservatives have that Gates and other large foundations will support “mass movements mobilized behind the overthrow of capitalism in the name of radically egalitarian utopias”? Those are your own words. Haven’t you been pushing the root causes theme because you and the people you represent don’t like the idea of a mobilized underclass, of a reawakening of class consciousness in this country?
And if that, or something like it, is the case, isn’t that what we should be discussing and debating? We’re not good chums ideologically, as much as I respect your intellect and like you personally.
You’ve read Bill’s op ed, now play the game.
I don’t find these explanations of Mr. Schambra’s “ulterior motives” plausible.
In criticizing “root causes” philanthropy, none of his examples have related to critiquing capitalism (through advocacy or think tanks or whatnot) – and it would be pretty hypocritical if they were, given that he’s employed by a think tank funded by philanthropic dollars.
Instead, he’s arguing that foundations should write checks to local orgs rather than designing grand projects and making them fit in. This is a distinction between two different approaches to *direct aid*. If he is subtly trying to undermine advocacy, he is so subtle that he appears not to be giving a single argument against it.
Moreover – do you really think that undermining *foundation*-driven advocacy is high on the conservative agenda? Who in their right mind is afraid that foundations are going to effectively attack capitalism? (Albert has made this point quite well before.) When I think of powerful media weapons, I think of Michael Moore and Jon Stewart … any foundation-funded think tank or “raising awareness” campaign (I would name some, but none of them have ever held my attention for more than a tenth of a second) is ~2398723975th on my list, just behind the guy who wrote “F@#$ Bush” on the sidewalk at 3rd St and 1st Avenue.
I prefer to take Mr. Schambra at his word. If he’s selling snake oil, a good conversation in the Sean vein (respond to what he says) will bring that out, pretty quickly – and unlike screaming at him that he’s being disingenuous, it will help get at the true nature and motivation of his biases, which I don’t think you could possibly be hitting with your “Mr. Schambra is afraid of what foundations will do to capitalism” theory.
Maybe you think there’s no point to this discussion, but if you just want to blow off steam, there are other places to do it. As long as Mr. Schambra’s here, we should challenge him in ways that he can/will respond to.
Same article, great new price!
Albert, I think, is correct that it would be useful to have a robust and thoroughgoing conversation about the ultimate political assumptions of our various approaches to philanthropy. But, as Holden suggests, it isn’t all that interesting if the conversation simply becomes an endlessly regressing probe for motives, the real motives behind the apparent motives, and so forth. I am a conservative, and I’ve never hidden that fact. But I’m a conservative of a particular sort, believing that vital local neighborhoods, communities, and civic associations constitute a vital but endangered keystone for American democracy, and that their preservation merits our utmost effort. As Nisbet and many other conservatives have argued, one of the problems community faces is the corrosive aspects of capitalism. That doesn’t mean that capitalism should be destroyed. It means that in America, we constantly navigate a tension between community and capitalism, between Bedford Falls and Pottersville, in terms of It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s possible to argue that community-minded conservatives don’t mean what they say – that out of self-delusion, ignorance, or mercenary greed, they’re really doing nothing more than providing a fig-leaf for unfettered, “rugged individualism” capitalism. Once the “false consciousness” card is played, however, the effort to carry on a genuine discussion seems pretty pointless.
Like Sean’s blog, stimulating genuine discussion is one of the central purposes of Hudson’s Bradley Center. As you noted earlier, Albert, “We can also debate some of the claims the Center makes through its conservative interlocutors, like for example, the claim that ‘Today social science has retreated into the academy, where it proceeds more like a cult – identifying villains, dispensing arcane knowledge about the world, and yearning for the good old days of welfarism and peace marches – than an enterprise dispensing useful knowledge about the world,’ and other such nonsense.”
Not only can we debate that, but we did, at the Bradley Center, in this panel discussion from which Jim Piereson’s comment is drawn. What may not be apparent from the isolated quote is that the panel wasn’t a conservative political rally, but rather was a discussion of Alice O’Connor’s new book Social Science for What? Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up, a powerful and insightful critique of conservative philanthropy and of the liberal philanthropy that, in her view, succumbed too quickly to conservative attack precisely because it hadn’t been clear about its own underlying moral and political assumptions.
When I as the moderator asked Professor O’Connor to respond to Mr. Piereson, she expressed the wish “to dissent very strongly – in the strongest possible terms – to the rendition of what liberal social science is and what liberalism is that Jim Piereson just gave us. I actually – and in fact I write about it in the book – I consider that to be a caricature that has been very, very frequently repeated by conservative critics of liberalism and liberal social science.” Georgetown historian James Allen Smith added that, “in terms of the caricature of history, you have two historians here on the panel who wouldn’t recognize themselves in the narrative that Jim Piereson just outlined. As for the cultural revolution of the 1960s, I just wish conservatives would get over it.” And so the debate was joined, not about motives, but pretty much about the substance of what progressive philanthropy had or had not accomplished d since the Russell Sage Foundation was established a century ago, and how it came to be challenged by a conservative philanthropic movement.
Albert, you read the transcript and concluded that the real purpose of the panel wasn’t to have a discussion about these matters, but rather to advance “claims the Center makes” by having Mr. Piereson speak. Can the Center host a discussion like this, discussing a book written by a progressive scholar about a progressive foundation, involving an evenly divided panel – two progressives and two conservatives (the fourth panelist was Hudson adjunct scholar Joel Schwartz) – without it being regarded as merely a clever conservative plot? Sadly, given the intellectual climate today, fed by conservative and liberal commentators alike, this is not just a clever rhetorical question.
Still wondering what modern examples of “root causes” folly you have in mind, and why you think unevaluated amateurism is good for anyone but the amateurs (I asked these questions better before).
Bill, the particular panel you mention was titled, “Social Science For What?” (taken from the title of O’Connor’s book) and its subject lends support to your current campaign against root causes. O’Connor’s book describes, and also criticizes, the kind of philanthropic/social science alliance you take hammer and tongs to in your root causes op ed. You have every right to arrange this kind of discussion. I mention this by way of dispelling the notion that the purpose of this particular panel was simply to have a nice chat about O’Connor’s book. It wasn’t a “conservative political rally,” as you say; neither was it one those pointless salon discussions you read about in Dostoevsky.
I give you credit for inviting responses from the other panelists to that particularly egregious remark by Mr. Piereson, so I misspoke when I called it a Bradley Center “claim.” I understand perfectly that you were pressed for time, and that part of your role was to encourage a diversity of opinions, but in the course of his remarks, Mr. Piereson uttered a great many more absurdities that were left unchallenged (e.g., “The big foundations created the diversity movement,” “The diversity movement destroyed
the underlying premise of the welfare state,” etcetera). His role on your panel was clearly that of a conservative voice, speaking in a conservative forum, presenting a conservative position. You’ve quoted him approvingly at other times, so I assume he was not there to play the psychotic wingnut, but rather to be a generally reasonable conservative interlocutor. This doesn’t mean that you or the Bradley Center need to agree with every sentence he utters within your walls, but it does mean, in my view, that you need to own them to some degree. The ACLU can’t invite Alan Dershowitz to represent the Liberal position on one of its panels, and then later decide, when things go awry, to disown everything he says—unless, of course, Mr. Dershowitz begins imitating a chicken and simply doesn’t stop.
That said, I very much appreciate the fact that there’s ideological diversity on Bradley Center panels. You deserve enormous credit for this. I wish Liberal institutions would return the favor.
A tired boxer.
I’ve grown up in the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. I’ve been a student of civil society and philanthropy. I’ve been a volunteer, a professional fundraiser, and now a grantmaker. Now I have only been in the foundation world for a year, so maybe I am naïve, or maybe it is just the foundation I am at, but I have never, ever seen this egalitarian attitude that poo-poos charity that you describe. I’ve seen only admiration, awe, and gratitude for the grants we give. For the grants we decline I see admiration, respect, frustration and disappointment. We don’t want to decline grants. Our whole purpose for existence is to give money away to charitable organizations! Charity *is* Philanthropy.
The big difference I see between the two is that the former derives from Latin (caritas “Esteem, affection, benevolence & costliness) and the latter Greek (philanthropia “humanity, benevolence,” from philanthropos (adj.) “loving mankind,” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind.”) It’s all just semantics. Just because Rockefeller once said there was a difference doesn’t mean that is how foundations operate today. Even if a few foundations still operate that way, I would bet most of them don’t. Charity *is* Philanthropy
I think any foundation would be fooling themselves if they every thought they could solve the “root cause” of a problem. I know my foundation isn’t. They never have. In fact, I think about the colleagues I have at foundations across the country, and I can’t think of one that claims to be looking to solve the “root cause” of any particular problem. You said it yourself Bill, these problems don’t occur in isolation but in a bigger context with social, political, and cultural issues that also have an impact of some kind. Most foundations just don’t have the kind of money it would take to make change on a level like that. A foundation could spend down its endowment in one fell swoop and not be able to fix a social problem. It’s unrealistic.
This is why I don’t think foundations are trying to find the “root cause”. They are experimenting with different approaches to see if one can make a difference. That is the key, making a difference. Could foundations do a better job communicating their successes and failures to the outside would. Hell yes. I totally agree that foundations have a long way to go to improve their connection with everyone outside of their foundation bubble. It is a big problem and it is something that needs to be pushed from the inside if there is ever any hope of change. But I think slowly and surely it will happen.