Yet another attack on Philanthropy That Might Actually Succeed in Changing the World in Some Significant Way. This one from my colleague Bill Schambra, who, perhaps sensing the untenability of the view that social phenomena have no causes, is now urging foundations to think small.
Mr. Schambra’s model for thinking small comes to us by way of the Elizabeth Brinn Foundation whose grant outcomes are “refreshingly concrete and specific.” According to Schambra, “Brinn can point to buildings they helped improve, vans they helped purchase, playgrounds they helped clean up.”
Nothing lackluster about that, we can all agree. A community’s need for buildings, vans, and clean playgrounds is indisputable.
By contrast, the examples of world-changing philanthropy typically paraded by its defenders—the Green Revolution, the crusade against hookworm—elicit a big yawn from Mr. Schambra who asks, What else have you got?
If these have gone stale, I would suggest exploring philanthropy’s contributions to bringing peace to Northern Ireland; providing an all-tuition-paid college education to every high school graduate in Louisiana with a GPA of 2.5 or better (a program now adopted by 21 other states); and ending the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
One of the great ironies here is that the Hudson Institute is itself nothing like those gritty community-based organizations that Mr. Schambra loves to champion (and which I’ve often championed on these pages). Hudson’s modest mission—generously supported by big-thinking philanthropists—is to promote global security, prosperity, and freedom. Haven’t the Institute’s funders gotten Bill’s memo?
One can only speculate about what’s behind Hudson’s eight-year-long campaign against big philanthropy. There are hints about the root causes of Mr. Schambra’s discomfort in his other writings. Because foundations often fill the gaps left by retreating sources of public support, they’re sanctioned by government and given fairly wide latitude in their operations. But if they go too far—if, as Schambra writes, they begin to “undermin[e] traditional sources of authority”—then it’s these sources of authority that must mobilize to curtail their power. We see this in Schambra’s warning, near the end of his op-ed, that the forces of law and good order “may not be so complaisant about philanthropy’s license” if it “drift[s] carelessly and inadvertently into … a revolutionary undertaking.”
You tell me: What’s a “revolutionary undertaking” from the perspective of a conservative think tank? Whatever it is, it’s clearly something very different from the purchase of the aforementioned vans. Perhaps big-thinking philanthropy might succeed in winning a stream of tax dollars for frontline work in low-income communities, a more consistent source of support than the grants from a foundation which, although lionized by Schambra, has already spent itself out of existence.