Without an eternal goal toward which time is necessarily tending …, history is a road leading nowhere.
— Charles Upton
I. Many Things Pressing, One Thing Needful
Given a set of well-defined philanthropic goals—e.g., reduce world CO2 emissions by 10 percent over the next 20 years, provide quality health care for all residents of Levittown—we can, with a lot of hard work, devise plausible strategies for moving toward those goals. It’s far more difficult for a donor or grantmaker to take a step back and answer the question: What in fact should my goals be, and why?
For those who control significant amounts of discretionary capital, this question is among the most vexing in all of philanthropy. It’s the Ur-Question on which hinges so much that’s right and so much that’s wrong about contemporary philanthropic practice.
In spite of its importance, it’s also the question most often elided in the strategic planning work that grantmakers conduct.
How do independent foundations, which have almost complete freedom in the choice of what they can fund, rationalize their choice of grantmaking goals?
The space of potential goals can be narrowed to some degree by considering constraints on talent, money, and other resources, or by adhering to historical patterns of institutional investment. But this narrowing of the space begs many questions and still leaves a mind-warping universe of possible goals for the grantmaker to consider.
Have you decided to end childhood hunger in your region? This is clearly a worthy goal, and one with enormous practical and emotional appeal. But is it tolerable for you to have well-nourished children with poor health outcomes, attending low-performing public schools, living in neighborhoods with significant gun violence? You clearly can’t do everything, but why focus on this one thing rather than another that might yield greater benefits for society? And greater benefits measured how? Do you simply say, ‘We’ve got to start somewhere,’ and leave it at that? Is that the best answer any of us can give?
I don’t believe it is.
A more satisfying answer takes us, I would argue, from the familiar landscape of logic models to the more unsettling terrain of philosophers and priests. Addressing the Ur-Question in philanthropy rather than waving it aside requires that we pause to consider our cherished assumptions and, possibly, confront some potentially uncomfortable facts about ourselves. This goes for grantmakers large and small.
II. Uh, What Was the Question?
A very smart colleague of mine once devised an exercise to help individual donors get in touch with their inner-program officer. (Relax: This is not as horrible as it sounds.) I’m paraphrasing here, but she asked donors to consider something like the following scenario:
Mary is a single mother living with her two young children in Hardby, a run-down part of the city. Unfortunately, Mary’s neighborhood hasn’t recovered from the ravages of recent hurricanes. Homeless individuals and families live in some of the abandoned properties in the neighborhood which are also used by prostitutes and drug dealers. Escalating levels of drug-related violence in the neighborhood have made parents afraid to let their children play in the streets.
Mary’s daughter, eight-year-old Elizabeth, is a gifted musician but suffers from asthma and other health problems. Mary fears that her son, 13-year-old Martin, will be “lost to the streets.” He’s had difficulty at school. Unlike his younger sister, Martin doesn’t like “book learning” but prefers instead to work with his hands.
Mary can’t work a regular 9 to 5 job because she can’t afford childcare for her two children. To make ends meet, she takes care of her neighbor’s children during the day for a small fee and does piecemeal sewing work to supplement her small income. She has often dreamed of a career in nursing, but simply hasn’t had the time or resources to pursue her dream.
Donors were then presented a list of some of the nonprofit organizations serving the Hardby community:
- Hardby Community Health Center: Provides free primary health care to Hardby residents
- Hardby Boys & Girls Club
- Microenterprises 4 All: Helps individuals launch and grow their small businesses
- Hardby Childcare Association: Provides childcare services to the indigent
- Childcare For All Coalition: Advocates for higher quality and more accessible childcare services
- Young Promising Musicians Charter School
- Hardby Neighborhood Association: Organizes a neighborhood crime watch and organizes residents to advocate for better law enforcement and police protection
Here was the exercise: Each donor was given $1 million in Monopoly money and asked what kind of nonprofit investments she would make in this scenario. The donor could choose to invest in one or several of the nonprofits on the list, or add her own.
As you can imagine, a very wide range of grantmaking strategies emerged from this exercise. Some donors focused on the immediate needs of Mary and her family; others invested in longer-term solutions. Some ignored Mary and focused on the children; others saw getting her into gainful employment as the key to all their futures.
I’ve conducted this exercise with many groups of donors, and what’s most surprising is that only once was I ever asked to specify the goal of the exercise—that is, to answer the Ur-Question. We can, with a little reflection, formulate the goal any number of ways, with each variation eliciting a different response. For example, we can ask the donor to invest the $1 million in such a way as to ...
… generate the most good for the most people
… address the root causes of the problems facing Mary, her children, and their community
… adhere to the Golden Rule
… maximize the social return on investment.
We can imagine the world we want to see. For many in the West, it’s the Star Trek world of the 23rd century (minus the intergalactic warfare), in which everyone’s basic needs are met; everyone is engaged in meaningful employment; there’s significant time for leisure and contemplation; and bigotry has been eliminated. For others it might be a world run by theocrats in which women are discouraged from pursuing careers, and single mothers are shunned. Unfortunately, our different visions of the ideal world are more often negotiated by violence than by reflection and debate.
Each of us can imagine the world we want to create. What’s far more difficult is to formulate the goals and strategies that will propel us there.
III. Doing To, Doing With
I’ve been reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, struck by the many parallels between the Brotherhood he alludes to in his book and the contemporary confraternity of progressive grantmakers. He devotes several passages to three young boys—Zoot Suiters? Hipsters?—whom he describes as “tall and slender, walking stiffly with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits.” They are “outside of historical time” because they don’t embrace the leftist ideology of the Brotherhood. But they strike a nerve with the protagonist:
I got up and went behind them. Women shoppers with bundles and impatient men in straw hats and seersucker suits stood along the platform as they passed. And suddenly I found myself thinking, Do they come to bury the others or to be entombed, to give life or to receive it? Do the others see them, think about them, even those standing close enough to speak? And if they spoke back, would the impatient businessmen in conventional suits and tired housewives with their plunder, understand? … But who knew (and now I began to tremble so violently I had to lean against a refuse can)—who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something precious? The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it. … What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole? What if history was not a reasonable citizen, but a madman full of paranoid guile and these boys his agents, his big surprise!
Among other things, I’m reminded by this extraordinary passage of the infelicity of words like “goals” and “strategies,” invoking, as they do, our many failed attempts to dam up and control the flow of human events. I’m reminded of the distinction we sometimes make between “doing with” and “doing to,” vainly and arrogantly ignoring where the true sources of power lie. And I’m better able to appreciate Winston Churchill’s warning that “However beautiful the strategy, [we] should occasionally look at the results.”
Well, I’ve looked, and not only is Mount Zion still a hell of a ways off, but it appears to be receding into the distance.
IV. Good Actions in Bad Faith?
We would be less than honest with ourselves if we didn’t consider another possibility: Just as local efforts to provide skills training to the unemployed can seem futile when the country as a whole has plunged into a deep recession, so can our collective efforts as grantmakers appear insignificant when contrasted with the vast forces affecting the communities we aim to serve.
For those of us attempting to fund significant social change, how do we rationalize our work to ourselves and others? Are we
- Convinced, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that the revolution can be funded?
- Biding our time, ready to support the next great people’s movement when it comes along?
- Going through the motions, collecting our salaries month after month, too bought in or too blind to see that we’re not really making any headway?
- Resigned (as one of my colleagues put it) to taking a permanently adversarial position?
Or are we simply keeping hope alive because the alternative is too awful to contemplate?