A version of these remarks was delivered at an event titled Is Philanthropy Killing Itself With Kindness? organized by Bill Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. The event was based on a provocative Chronicle of Philanthropy article written by Caroline Preston.
Thank you, Bill, for this invitation to continue the conversation that Caroline started in her Chronicle of Philanthropy article.
Some of us have had the good fortune of working alongside the “great souls of philanthropy,” grantmakers who are self-effacing and self-critical and who see their work as belonging to a moral tradition that stretches back thousands of years.
Others of us have had the experience of working with professionals in philanthropy whose egos suck all the oxygen out of a room, who give out pats on the head and strut about like big chickens only dimly aware of their moral disfigurement … and I mean this only in the nicest possible way! To those of you who’ve witnessed this less attractive side of philanthropy, you might justifiably marvel at the thesis that philanthropy is killing itself with kindness.
But it is, my friends, it is.
And here I need to make a distinction: By “philanthropy” I’m not referring to the generosity of individuals and families and others who’ve given of their own wealth, sometimes at great sacrifice, to help others who are less fortunate, or who’ve given to help fill our lives with music and art.
I’m referring largely to the benthic creatures, like myself, who inhabit foundations established with other people’s money.
Something strange and, frankly, something a little creepy happens when human beings gather around mountains of un-earned cash, much as we witness unwholesome transformations of character when family members gather around the casket of a wealthy great aunt who has no heirs and whose last will and testament has been pronounced. My friends, it can get ugly.
And yet in spite of this incipient creepiness, we end up killing ourselves with kindness. How is this possible?
Let’s exclude the general middle class niceness that permeates the field of organized philanthropy. We see this kind of politeness in every major American institution.
The kind of niceness I’m convinced is killing philanthropy is the kind that keeps us from speaking the truth to one another—or at least, from expressing what we take to be the truth.
We learn very early on in our careers to self-edit every “no, but” into a “yes, and,” partly because it’s considered rude to directly contradict a colleague. To posit a competing point of view would require us to work out the actual truth of the matter, if there is one, by adducing facts and exercising our reason. Instead we throw every half-cocked idea that pops into our heads onto a piece of flipchart paper and call it a day.
Why do we do this? What’s the danger here of being a little less nice and a little more forthcoming?
When the interaction is peer-to-peer, there are several forces at play. First, there’s a kind of sentimentalism in the philanthropic sector that holds that every point of view is equally valuable, however benumbed or just plain false it might be. Just as in the film The Meaning of Life every sperm is sacred, in philanthropy every witless idea gets pride of place on the benighted flipchart. This is a vestige, perhaps, of the ravages of postmodern thinking on the American academy, which destroyed an entire generation of young minds and continues to fuel the relativism we see in many aspects of American culture. Second, because there’s so much mobility in the field of philanthropy, the colleague that you disgruntle today might well become the foundation executive who controls the stream of funding to your organization tomorrow.
Keep in mind the fact that there is no reward system in philanthropy (as there sometimes is in academia) for exposing or avoiding fuzzy thinking. On the contrary: foundation CEOs who feed their trustees on a steady diet of pure baloney appear to me to stand a better chance of holding onto their jobs. Nor does any kind of tenure protect the outspoken. Instead, it’s often the case that the squeaky wheel gets the grief. And because in philanthropy we are accountable to no one but God and the law, we don’t feel any great pressure to expose ourselves to the “salutary qualities of an external discipline,” as one of my colleagues once described it.
Things get especially dicey when a program officer, for example, expresses his unedited opinion to a powerful foundation CEO. This, in the parlance of my field, is a “career-limiting move.” I have on many occasions heard one of these powerful CEOs deliver 15 minutes of uninterrupted piffle from the conference dais only to see him surrounded by fawning admirers assuring the speaker that his talk was the crowning experience of their lives. Unfortunately, the truth bends around the powerful people in our field the way light bends around massive objects in space.
And so in this and other ways, truth often becomes the first casualty of philanthropy.
How does our tendency to behave as craven colleagues or fawning lickspittles kill philanthropy? After all, don’t we see this kind of behavior in every field?
There are, I believe, many kinds of philanthropic truth that we need to own and debate and teach and insist on before we can move forward as a field, but we don’t do this to any substantial degree. I would argue—if I could find somebody to argue with, which of course I can’t, because we’re all so busy being nice to one another—I would argue that this issue, organized philanthropy’s uneasy relationship to various kinds of truth, is at the heart of numerous befuddlements in our sector.
I strongly believe, for example, that there are many practical truths about grantmaking that we need to champion. And yet I might forego expressing these truths when my colleague tries to force a merger between two organizations; when he refuses to let his grant money be used for salaries and other kinds of “overhead”; or when he wears his grantees down to stumps by convening them with excessive frequency. A hundred years of experience have taught our field that these practices—and many others like them—should be roundly condemned, that there are in fact better and worse ways of making grants. And yet I sit on my hands and “yes, and” the offender into a warm pool of self-satisfaction.
There are other kinds of truth in philanthropy that come to us not by experience, but by the work of many great thinkers who preceded us. We don’t speak these truths to one another because many of us are unaware of them; or worse, we’re aware of them but dare not offend others by insisting on them. So, for example, periodically you’ll hear the canard that we can’t “attribute causality” to the kinds of social interventions that foundations fund, when in fact we can attribute causality in large classes of cases, even in those cases where our desired outcome is some change in human behavior. The great pioneers in the field of causality in the social sciences—Georg Henrik von Wright, H. L. A. Hart, Tony Honoré, Donald Davidson—are largely unknown in philanthropy, even to the professional evaluators who serve the nonprofit sector. Some of these same truths about the nature of causality in the social sciences would, if widely debated, undermine the great faith many of us place in the construction of so-called theories of change—painful exercises we often inflict on our grantees.
At any conference of grantmakers you will hear us trample like unfeeling cattle on historical truths, on truths about the interpretation of texts, on insights into the nature of culture and how it changes over time, on new research into the rationality of human actors—without anyone, except perhaps Bill Schambra, raising his voice in protest.
We don’t speak the truth to one another because we’re afraid of exposing our assumptions, our frameworks for understanding the world, our biases, to intelligent scrutiny. These assumptions and frameworks shape the way we approach grantmaking and they should be made explicit and vigorously debated because 90 percent of the time we are simply mistaken or see only a small part of the truth. Are we or are we not living in a post-racial America? What does an equitable society look like? I doubt that in my lifetime we will publicly debate these great questions in philanthropy; we will not run the risk of offending one another; we will not derail the gravy train or in any way threaten our comfortable sinecures.
To ask about the place of truth in philanthropy is to raise, in my view, the most fundamental question about the nature of grantmaking practice: What kind of enterprise are we?
Are we a kind of applied sociology in which we’re given so many dollars to maximize a posited social good? Is that what we’re about?
Alternatively, since our practice is rooted in a moral tradition, are the truths we should most concern ourselves with moral truths?
The wealthy through foundations and nonprofits manage social change via inputs, outputs, outcomes and petty rules and management hierarchies that denature a potentially revolutionary social movement of the disenfranchised into a well managed and non-threatening project to assist the disadvantaged upon their release from the State Penitentiary …
“Could it be,” he asks, “that philanthropy is ... the expression of a managerial tradition, of a capitalist, and technocratic, rather than moral tradition?”
If we’re not entirely a technocratic field, are we perhaps a hybrid field that can and should borrow thoughtfully from many disciplines?
I suspect we’ll never get the chance to settle this question. Our kindness will keep us burning through hundreds of millions of donor dollars, wearing our little triumphs like great badges of honor, untouched by the blinding, often unkind, light of reason.
A few disclaimers before I close: Any resemblance between characters I’ve described in my talk and actual persons alive or dead is purely coincidental, as is any correspondence between what I’ve said and the actual truth of the matter. The author would especially like to exclude from any criticism, implied or otherwise, all those present at this gathering, whom I hold in the highest regard, knowing well that you and I, unlike other possible persons, cannot possibly fall into the conceptual and moral traps I’ve described, and that you constitute a body of exceptional people, filled to bursting with the highest moral intentions, and are more than worthy of the kind of praise that might in other situations be deemed excessive.
With that said, thank you for hearing me out! Really, you’ve been too kind!