Luxury! Opulence! The hotel was, to my eyes, spectacular, a Taj Mahal next to the Econo-Lodges I had patronized in my days as a nonprofit drudge. I danced around my well-appointed room in nothing but my socks, flicking every switch I could. Free coffee! Bottled water! A mini bar bursting with Snickers and Pringles! I paused in the bathroom to admire the bewildering array of towels, wondering how one person could possibly use them all. I surfed the 200 channels of my flat screen TV. Downstairs in the health club I felt like Odysseus after years of travel and shipwreck, home again in his beloved Ithaca enjoying a magnificently heated pool. And—what was this? a machine to spin-dry my bathing suit? Short of Havana in the 1950s, could anything possibly have been more decadent?
That was 1994. I was young and had clearly come up in the world, attending my first philanthropy conference as a grantmaker, and being introduced, I imagined, to all the privileges of that office. But the surprises that greeted me in my hotel were trifles compared with those that followed.
At that night’s reception I visited long tables buried with sushi and tropical fruits, cheeses and finger foods of every description. My colleagues and I hoovered up mouthfuls of shrimp and swam through bottles of wine. This was just the appetizer. Down the street a ways, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was given entirely to us. A jazz trio greeted us as we entered that beautiful building. Music! Magnificent art! More food and wine! As a sometime proponent of nonprofit austerity, I gaped at all this excess with a mixture of pain and delight—mostly delight.
A workmate of mine stood nearby as I devoured my tenth chicken sate, licking the peanut sauce from my fingers. For months he had endured my little speeches on Boston’s poor, and now he was following me through the crowds, watching how I would react to this extravagant bacchanal. Would I now, having been completely sated with food and drink, storm out of the museum in protest, later asserting that the money could have been better spent on the poor? I picked up another dumpling, struggling with my conscience. “Viva la revolución!” I finally told him, before skulking away to the dessert table.
There was an affliction of the soul that became very fashionable in Russia of the 1860s. This affliction, which translates roughly as “civic grief,” was characterized by an acute suffering over social ills and inequities. Apparently, the deaths of some high school students in Petersburg were attributed to this excess of empathy. Was I expecting some mass display of civic grief at the conference I just described? a harrowing yet nevertheless inspiring self-immolation on Market Street? None of these things, really, but I did search for a token of solidarity, for some sign of a shared purpose that transcended our particular organizations, that transcended even heaven and its saints. Here we were in one of the great cities of the world, in the bang and clang of its many contradictions. I remembered the words of the great 19th century Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond:
[T]he Church with all its splendid equipment, the cloister with all its holy opportunity, are not the final instruments for fitting men for Heaven. The City, in many of its functions, is a greater Church than the Church. It is amid the whirr of its machinery and in the discipline of its life that the souls of men are really made. How great its opportunity is we are few of us aware. It is such slow work getting better, the daily round is so very common, our ideas of a heavenly life are so unreal and mystical that even when the highest Heaven lies all around us, when we might touch it, and dwell in it every day we live, we almost fail to see that it is there.
Seventeen years after my first conference, here I am in the heart of Philadelphia, a crushing poverty to our north and foreclosures all around. Here is where our souls might be forged. And yet a collective vision of heaven still lies beyond our reach. As for civic grief, we can barely attain to civic disconsolation.
I’ve learned to expect far less than civic grief from these great gatherings of grantmakers. As in times past, we will urge one another to provide general operating support to our grantees; to work in meaningful partnership with the communities we serve; to collaborate for greater impact. As before, we’ll feel a slight pang as an army of mostly black and brown waiters fans out across the ballroom to serve mostly white patrons. There will be the customary bouts of self-congratulation and a heart-warming video of poor children who are now college-bound. Then, we will pack our bags and leave.
Perhaps this is as much as we can expect from philanthropy, a discipline that has become increasingly technocratic over the past several years. Perhaps this is what inevitably happens when a calling is transformed into a career.
I’m inspired by the younger people coming into philanthropy. They’re smart and talented, and the more irreverent they are, the more I admire them. But I don’t believe, as some do, that the salvation of the field will come from them. My fear is that us old-timers have done too good a job of reproducing ourselves in the next generation of grantmakers. Nor will the salvation of the field come from technology. Technology will at best enable us to use ever-more complicated tools to leave untouched the basic structures of social, economic, and political oppression.
I don’t know about the field of philanthropy, but what I most need right now is a brutal honesty about my very limited relevance as a grantmaker, a hard look in the hallway mirror before I leave my hotel room and turn in my keys.