There’s an urgency in the deliberation of social activists that’s often missing from conversations among those of us who work at foundations.
Social activists breathe fire. At their best, they’re deeply knowledgeable about the manner in which historical accident, human nature, and ideology have interacted to produce oppressor and oppressed. There’s plenty of impassioned debate; the causes and the people they champion have an immediate presence.
The atmosphere changes when foundation folks gather to address social problems. Often, in my experience, there’s a maddening calm. We’re likely to replace fire by a polite and strangely apolitical bonhomie. You’ll find many former activists among us, brimming with good ideas and good intentions, striving in our own way to make some kind of difference in the world.
But there’s been a subtle shift.
When somebody in the foundation circle puts the issue of race on the table, to take one example, it’s sometimes treated like Aunt Betty’s Mayonnaise Surprise—one of those potluck dishes everybody comments on but few dare sample. Those of us in this circle have learned to preserve the outward calm, and we pass over in silence those subjects that would often add the greatest value to our philanthropic interventions.
I pray that I may live to see the day when these two benevolent circles—activists and philanthropoids—converge. In the meantime, we foundation folks have a lot to learn from our more incandescent cousins.
What activists tend to do well is ask the question, How did we get to this state of affairs in the first place? The best social activists make it a point to understand the history, the basic assumptions, the habits of mind, the structures, the policies and the laws that led to the creation of social inequalities. They ask: What are the mechanisms by which these inequalities are sustained? What has been the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression?
Asking these questions is not an idle exercise. If we fail to ask them before we engage in any kind of philanthropic activity—and, in my view, we fail to ask them roughly 99 percent of the time—we’re simply proposing a kind of triage on society’s wounded that will do good for some, but keep intact the flow of victims.
For some of us, this might be sufficient. Under the guise of constructing “strong local communities reflecting their own moral and spiritual values,” Bill Schambra, director of the conservative Bradley Center, urges that foundations reject the so-called “professionalism of reform.” Supporting effective, local charitable work is the proper province of foundations, not systemic analysis and reform. It profits foundation leaders nothing to rage against the machine. According to Schambra:
the Founders may just have been right — that is, right in their sober estimation of the permanencies of human nature and how its often unattractive features might be harnessed to reasonable political goods. … [T]he 20th century American progressive project seems to have run into trouble at least in part because it had a mistaken view of human nature — that is, that it overestimated it, and asked far too much of it by way of … disinterested public-spiritedness. At the same time, a conservatism comfortable with materialist self-interest … might have prospered precisely because it had a sounder view of such matters — it works with, rather than against, the grain of human nature.
Thus the proper way to achieve “reasonable political goods” is not to battle—as so many activists have—against the material self-interestedness of the market, but to work with rather than against the “often unattractive features” of our human nature. We do this in the faith that our selfishness, our lack of disinterested public-spiritedness, will, through a freer market, ultimately best serve the disenfranchised. Mr. Schambra believes he’s a discovered a way to make good omelets out of bad eggs.
By this point it may be clear to the reader why Mr. Schambra’s views resonate with some of us in the largely ahistorical, apolitical foundation world: he essentially lets us off the hook and invites us to leave well enough alone. Race, the politics of power, the abuses of unregulated markets—we’re not to worry our little heads about these things. We’ve made a balls of addressing these issues in the past and our chances for future success are slim.
The average household net worth of the top one percent of wage earners in the United States is $10.2 million, whereas that of the bottom 40 percent is $1,900. Imagine the miracles the current system could produce if we left it to its own devices.