I was surprised and pleased by the question posed by Bill Schambra in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op ed: Is Conservative Philanthropy Ignoring the Poor? His thoughtful article provided a refreshing counterpoint to some of the anti-poor messaging of the Republican primaries. It should be noted that in Democratic primaries, by contrast, candidates don’t so much attack the poor as simply ignore them.
I share Schambra’s admiration for the generous men and women of all political and social ideologies who understand the obligations of living in community. One of the most “progressive” programs in the country, in my view, was launched by a couple with impeccable conservative bona fides. The Taylor Plan, which started in Louisiana but has now been adopted in 21 states, leverages public money with private money to guarantee a college education to all qualifying high school graduates. It’s difficult to find a more compelling contemporary example of work that might over time significantly reduce racial disparities in higher education.
Some readers might have stumbled, as I did, on Schambra’s invocation of George W. Bush as an icon of the “compassionate conservatism” his article celebrates. Many liberals and conservatives still fail to see the compassion in state-sanctioned torture, and in a war declared on false premises that has cost thousands of military and civilian lives and bankrupted the country. Under President Bush, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was notorious for political cronyism, frequently accused of linking grant monies to campaign support.
Putting this issue aside, we can more clearly focus on the heart of Schambra’s argument, which is this:
… [B]eyond the problem of political image lies the more substantial issue of conservatism’s enduring charitable obligation to the poor. Ardent advocacy for reduced government spending is fine, but it must be matched with serious regard for the needs of those affected. This is a moral demand upon a movement that takes moral demands seriously.
A refreshing call to action. As an example of a serious regard for the needs of the poor, Schambra cites a group of wealthy conservative business executives in Denver whose largesse helped Step 13, “a small, scruffy rehabilitation center for addicts,” buy the building it could no longer rent.
First, hats off to this forward-thinking group of businessmen who, without being solicited, saw a significant community need and responded to it. Addiction is not an issue typically embraced by individual donors, conservative or otherwise. I’m reminded of the Business Council of New Orleans & the River Region in my own beloved city, an organization that has championed the very difficult issue of prisoner re-entry and re-integration.
Having given credit where credit is due, I invite the reader to reflect on the philanthropic archetype proposed by Schambra, in which a generous patron bestows favor on a grateful supplicant. What concerns me is that this assistance for the supplicant depends very much on the vagaries and inconstancies of donor volition. What if this group of businessmen had not heard about the plight of Step 13? What if they happened to be strapped for cash this particular quarter? Should services for the addicted, a clear and consistent public need, depend so much on chance?
Sticking with this inspiring example, I would rather that our collective noblesse (mine included) be more than morally obliged since experience shows that individual volition can make for a flimsy safety net, especially in those cases where the supplicant has participated in his own ruin. I know that some donors put homeless addicts in the category of the “undeserving poor,” making fundraising for organizations like Step 13 a real challenge.
In complex societies, individuals are typically obliged to support important public goods through taxation. Being a small government liberal, I’m no friend of taxes, and if Mr. Schambra has an alternative, I’d like to hear it. Perhaps instead of levying taxes, we can agree to impose schmaxes, the latter coming into force when and only when the spirit of charity fails us.
The archetype of the generous patron conferring a good on a grateful supplicant is compelling in part because it’s so completely devoid of context: it’s the perfect Form of Giving floating in Plato’s heaven. In the broader US context, the realm of human need is much messier. There are significant racial disparities in education, health outcomes, income, and other indicators; there is a school-to-prison pipeline that overwhelmingly affects African American boys; there is enduring discrimination in employment, housing, and other domains. There are, in other words, social problems that can’t be effectively addressed by simple charitable acts because they’re essentially structural. Showering money on court-involved juveniles will not change the conditions that abetted their becoming court-involved in the first place.
Support for efforts to understand and address these conditions is what I and others have called “root causes philanthropy,” a form of giving that has been the frequent target of Schambra’s considerable polemical skills.
Taking my cue from him, I invite the reader to ponder this question: Why do some conservatives downplay the structural bases of concentrated poverty? What is there to fear in this analysis?
Schambra always writes very warmly of his tenure as a program officer at the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which, according to its website, is “devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it.” It touts programs that “support limited, competent government; a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual, and cultural activity; and a vigorous defense, at home and abroad, of American ideas and institutions.”
To a person weened on the mission statements of left-leaning foundations, the language and content of these priorities are pleasantly alien. They seem to reflect values that I, a self-confessed liberal, could easily embrace. If I spent an afternoon with Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, would we, at the end of it, be willing to drink from the same chalice of sociopolitical communion? Rather than, “my country, right or wrong,” I was taught, “my country, when right, to be kept right, and when wrong, to be put right.” Does this constitute a vigorous enough defense of American ideas and institutions? Would the Bradleys agree that strengthening democratic capitalism might at times require regulating it? Would their dynamic marketplace for intellectual activity have room for thoughtful critiques of capitalism and for ways that it might evolve? Or do these priorities emanate from inside a train of circled wagons? Are these priorities, like so many of their liberal counterparts, matters of an unfortunate kind of political orthodoxy that interprets nuanced disagreement as a kind of betrayal? How do Left and Right approach one another when the guns of the Culture Wars are in full report?
One thing is certain: Under Schambra’s direction, the Bradley Center at the Hudson Institute has been, more than any other philanthropic institution I know, a place where the Left has constructively met the Right, and where reasoned debate has effectively replaced the Frankenthinking endemic to the nonprofit field.
Schambra has eloquently championed a style of philanthropy—at one time closely associated with conservative donors—that focuses on providing general operating support, with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss, to organizations and efforts led by visionary individuals. He’s been an ardent critic of philanthropy’s unreflective use of metrics and other devices borrowed from the business world. And while I haven’t always agreed with Schambra, I’ve always benefitted from his invitation to step outside the liberal echo chamber of mainstream philanthropy.