Philanthropy and civil society

Originally posted to this blog: 3/4/08

While preparing a talk to faculty and students of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University recently, I ran across a 2004 issue of the journal The READER. The journal is published by Grantmakers in the Arts, a national association of professional arts grantmakers.
The lead article was titled “Civil Society and its Discontents: Philanthropy’s Civic Mission” and was written by Bruce Sievers, visiting scholar at Stanford and Senior Fellow with the Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors. In it, he discussed some of the complex challenges facing American philanthropy.
As I read, I was struck by how rarely a discussion of the underlying philosophy for what foundations do ever surfaces in our conversations with grantees or the public. So, with thanks to my colleague Bruce, and some thoughts of my own, I offer these ruminations:
American philanthropy’s roots are in the religious concept of charitable giving brought here by the pilgrims. This idea of “charity” maintains and even promotes a separation of classes – one class doing good for those less fortunate. It designates one party the benefactor, the other the supplicant, with the benefactor in the position of power, even though it is the supplicant that is the “actor” in benefiting society.
This historical orientation limits the philanthropic response to relief for the symptoms of social imbalance, but not the causes. It’s relief for those in need, but not the elimination of their need.
The unrelenting pressure of need has led many funders to look for a different approach from historical charity, which they believe generates dependency and turns need into an entitlement. The idea of eliminating need, however, seems impossible. We just hope to make things better.So we look at two new ways of using our resources:
(1) We look for new models to make a bigger difference – to “move the needle.” We fund innovative, often untested projects and create our own initiatives designed for impact on a larger, often systemic level. This is philanthropy’s current romance with entrepreneurship and a proactive move toward the bigger picture.
(2) We also focus on improving the productivity of nonprofits, improving the infrastructure that delivers relief. This approach, through the technical tools of business models, measurable outcomes and effective business practices, has done much to strengthen nonprofits’ operational structures when, every year, they have to do more with less.
Where these approaches are limited is when they expect innovation or increased productivity to solve problems grounded in the decline and dysfunction of society’s core beliefs and values. It is the shortcomings in society’s values framework that is the source of America’s deepest problems – the decline of social capital over the past several decades that Robert Putnam (author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”) and others have identified.
Voter apathy, indifference toward education, economic inequity in a capitalist system, racial intolerance and other factors generate the symptoms of social dysfunction that philanthropy has historically tried to ameliorate. But these causes are beyond philanthropy’s ability to cure unless philanthropy is willing to change its mission and work at the level of values, civil obligation and strengthening shared norms. You can imagine the challenges of such a mission shift.
Art as a Core Value of Society

It seems to me that the arts live wholly within this values framework. Art does not feed, clothe or house people. It is not art’s role to eliminate social ills. And yet the arts call us to know and practice the best that we are as human beings. They effortlessly cross the racial and class divide, and speak deeply to the most egregious failings of our systems of justice, education and economy.
They teach tolerance for differences, practice toward mastery, and critical thinking. They offer beauty, productive alternatives, authentic and enlightening experiences, and ways of being in the world that would, in fact, eliminate its ills if we would just listen and act. Support for the arts is support for the advancement of core human values. It is not charity.
The READER article by Bruce Sievers referenced a 1994 paper published in the University of Chicago’s journal Ethics. Its co-authors, Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, made this thought-provoking statement, which I leave you with:
“…the health and stability of modern democracy depends, not only on the justice of its basic structure, but also on the qualities and attitudes of its citizens: for example, their sense of identity and how they view potentially competing forms of national, regional, ethnic or religious identities; their ability to tolerate and work together with others who are different from themselves; their desire to participate in the political process in order to promote the public good and hold political authorities accountable; their willingness to show restraint and exercise personal responsibility in their economic demands and in personal choices which affect their health and the environment.”

Rich food for thought over the next eight months as we participate in the process that will choose America’s next leadership team.