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.