Ideas to Impact Blog

Restoring the Charitable Community

Restoring the Charitable CommunityExcerpts from a lecture by William A. Schambra for American Philanthropic’s Center for Civil Society

A couple of months ago, a group of prominent philanthropists launched a new national blue- ribbon committee, called the “Generosity Commission.”

It’s funded by America’s largest foundations, and its purpose is to investigate why charitable donations have dropped to an all-time low, especially among low- and middle-income donors: just 50% of us today give to nonprofits, which many believe is shameful for Americans, reportedly the most generous people on earth.

Now, as is typical with such commissions, they’ll be reporting back in two years after spending $3.8 million, with final results due in the Fall of 2023.

But I could spare them all that time and money by pointing right now to a leading cause of the erosion of everyday charity: America’s largest foundations, the very funders of the commission.

After all, they’ve spent over a century now telling us that small-scale charity is at best useless, and at worst, harmful, because it wastes resources, merely putting band-aids on the symptoms of our problems.

The only way giving can be truly effective is rather to address the root causes of our problems, pursuing them down to their ultimate social and economic sources, and solving them once and for all.

Now, this distinction between band-aid charity and root-cause philanthropy is the guiding concept behind big philanthropy today, as it has been for over a hundred years.

... It’s difficult to overstate how much contempt this modern notion of philanthropy had for “mere charity,” especially charity based on the Christian notion of a preferential consideration for the least, the last, and the lost.

Christian charity asks us to open our hearts to those on the margin, and tend to their immediate needs, to deal with the person immediately in front of us. It’s a summons to tend to the wounds of the injured traveler on the road to Damascus, and not hurry by, as Martin Luther King put it, on the way to an important meeting of the Damascus Road Improvement Association.

In that sense, Christian charity and Tocqueville’s civic association have a great deal in common. They are both grounded in a commitment to the dignity of the individual. They both understand human flourishing to require membership in an intense, loving community that takes seriously the legitimacy of individual needs and preferences, no matter how seemingly petty or unenlightened.

“It’s difficult to overstate how much contempt this modern notion of philanthropy had for ‘mere charity.”

They both understand the all-too-human tendency to shun public affairs for immersion in self-interest. They both seek to counteract the temptation to avoid the often-unpleasant “face-to-faceness” of community, and the inclination to cede authority to distant elites, who promise to deal with our problems for us, more efficiently and rationally.

... Again, an example from Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution: several years ago, the staggeringly wealthy Gates Foundation was embarrassed by the presence of dozens of homeless people camping outside its new $500 million headquarters in Seattle—even though Gates had made homelessness one of its focus areas.

When asked about this, a spokesperson replied that “We’re trying to move upstream to a systems level to ... prevent family homelessness before it happens....” This is absolutely classic root-cause thinking. It means blinding yourself to the person immediately in front of you, in the quest to solve the problem “upstream” at the “systems level.”

... Lest you think [the structural racism critique of America] is a marginal left-wing idea, you should know that just in the past two years some $12 billion—that’s billion with a b—have been earmarked by philanthropy—including our largest and most prestigious foundations—for overcoming structural racism.

That may take the form of support for introducing critical race theory into our schools, or for efforts to defund the police and curtail prosecution of crime by local district attorneys. These sorts of dramatic and jarring changes are absolutely essential, we’re told, to get at the root cause of the structural racism behind our problems today.

Now, the root-cause goal of eradicating structural racism points to one of the critical deficiencies of this sort of thinking.

When you check with the low-income communities where defunding the police and ignoring crime are actually occurring, they don’t want any part of it.

They experience first-hand what happens when police and prosecutors withdraw, namely, spiking crime and other kinds of civil disorder.

Those communities want fair law enforcement, to be sure, but they do want law enforcement. Yet this concern is dismissed by foundations as perpetuating, rather than remedying, the systemic cause of injustice in society.

This is the critical challenge this conference was meant to address, I believe: How can we—who support the revitalization of community in America—begin to reform charitable giving so that it undergirds rather than undermines this sort of grassroots civic engagement?

When I worked at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee back in the 90s, we tackled this problem head-on.

Now, most foundations will commission a task force of professional experts to help them design a new approach to grantmaking. Instead, we asked Bob Woodson to come to town, and simply look around and tell us who he thought were worthwhile local leaders doing good work.

He took us to Bill Lock, who ran a church-based business incubator in an abandoned warehouse on Teutonia Avenue.

He took us to Victor and Dawn Barnett, who used a basketball program to inculcate civic values in their young players. And he took us to Cordelia Taylor—my personal hero—who founded Family House, a community-based senior care facility in her family home in the heart of the inner city.

Once we had this core of local leaders in our portfolio, we asked them in turn to help us reach out to others like them—groups that were doing excellent work, but that were too small and too busy to hope for attention from larger foundations.

And here’s the critical point: we didn’t burden them with a massive and complicated grant application process. We didn’t ask them to come up with theories of change or logic models to translate their already proven practice into whimsical, abstract concepts.

We didn’t ask for elaborate reports with complicated measurable outcomes. We didn’t limit our funding to one or two years and then abandon them in hopes that they might somehow become self-sustaining.

We stuck with them over the long haul and provided them general operating support with a minimum of reporting requirements.

That’s because, no matter how doubtful we might have been about some of what they did, we trusted these grassroots leaders to know best what to do to help their own local communities.