P O S T E D B Y S A L L Y
Sally Wilde, a retired philosophy professor and frequent contributor to White Courtesy Telephone, lives in Colorado where she blogs, tends to her six beautiful grandchildren, and earns beer money by waitressing at the Naughty Bits Internet Café.
I finally had the opportunity to read a transcript of Bill Schambra’s prepared remarks for a recent meeting of foundation staffers and trustees titled “Combatting Poverty.” What a dear, funny little man—and I mean this only in the nicest way! Mr. Schambra, as many of you know, was once senior advisor and speechwriter for U.S. Attorney General Edwin “Miranda rights only help guilty defendants” Meese. He’s currently the director of the conservative Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
In his remarks, he waxes lyrical about Cordelia Taylor, founder and director of Family House, a small charity serving low-income seniors in Milwaukee. Despite the fact that Ms. Taylor clearly does the Lord’s work, she’s been unable to attract the support of large foundations. Why? Because, according to Schambra,
Mrs. Taylor’s Family House, no matter how wonderful or inspiring, is a mere charity. And large, modern, sophisticated foundations don’t do charity. They do root causes philanthropy …
[T]his means that philanthropy becomes the province of the university-educated professional and the trained expert who have mastered [the social sciences]. Only they can design and execute programs of sufficient mass and complexity as to tackle all the intricately interrelated causal factors at the same time. In this view, nonprofit grantees are useful only insofar as they carry out the program as designed at foundation headquarters.
It’s a typical rhetorical move to strawman your opponent. In this case the opponent is the faceless foundation executive who, in his entire pointy-headed career, will never achieve more than Ms. Taylor is able to accomplish simply by laying her hands on the fevered brow of one needy senior. Schambra claims that nonprofit leaders like Ms. Taylor get the shaft because “[t]hey often foolishly rely on religious faith or other kinds of folk wisdom to sustain their energies and guide their work, because they haven’t taken those university classes on the causes and consequences of poverty.”
I’m surprised his prepared remarks didn’t spontaneously burst into flames.
Of course I commend him for championing community-based work. Yet while I know of at least one Bradley Center publication written under his watch that recommends specific charities to donors (think tanks mostly), I would bet a large ring of baloney that none extols the virtues of Ms. Taylor’s Family House or anything like it.
Is it possible that this sweet-natured, God-fearing man* has turned Ms. Taylor into just another rhetorical device, the way politicians do at conventions when they point to a Mrs. Agnes Trout in the audience and describe how she overcame an enlargement of the thyroid?
Mr. Schambra knows that national foundations don’t generally fund the kind of direct service work that Family House does because many foundation leaders believe—rightly, in my view—that it’s the role of government, not the role of private philanthropy, to guarantee the health and well-being of seniors by underwriting services for the elderly. These leaders also believe you can best help community-based organizations survive by encouraging the development of local support for their work.
The great irony, given all of Mr. Schambra’s rhetorical excesses, is that large foundations do in fact invest in the work of community-based organizations like Family House, sometimes directly and sometimes through regranting or capacity-building initiatives. It would take only five minutes on the Internet for any suitably inclined think-tanker to do the necessary research—assuming, of course, that the truth of the matter were at all relevant to the issue, which I strongly suspect it is not.
Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Suggest to Mr. Schambra that because Ms. Taylor’s work is such a great public good, it should be supported by public dollars collected through taxes. You can define a nanosecond as the interval between the moment you make this suggestion and the instant he cools noticeably to the idea of further championing her work.
* According to a description given me by my colleague Albert who informs me that Mr. Schambra is rather tall and speaks with the authority of one who understands the importance of subordinating fact to principle.