Program and Panel
May 17, 2004
Introduction by WILLIAM SCHAMBRA, Hudson Institute
BRUCE SIEVERS, formerly of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund
LESLIE LENKOWSKY, Indiana University
PETER SHIRAS, Independent Sector
Questions and answers
In May 2004, Bruce Sievers, who was hard at work on a new book on civil society and philanthropy,* agreed to combine his thoughts and ideas into an essay for the Bradley Center, which served as the basis for a panel discussion on May 17, 2004. The following is a summary of the essay and the discussion.
*Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Fate of the Commons (Tufts University Press, expected March 2010).
Summary of the Essay
Since the dawn of civil society as we know, normative components—value commitments to individual rights, pursuit of common good, and toleration—have been its defining features, according to Sievers. Precisely these components separate civil society from the market and the state; thus, participation in civil society offers a unique way of engaging the world. However, over the course of the twentieth century, the sector has found itself tilting toward the market’s frame of reference and suffering under a growing emphasis on individual rights over communal purposes. The common set of values that once girded the market and the state has eroded, and institutional gridlock is the result. Sievers’ essay asks whether philanthropy, which played a key role in the development of civil society, can fill the void.
“It is very difficult for philanthropy, as currently practiced, to respond adequately,” Sievers’ essay goes on to answer the question. “Since philanthropy is integrally connected to civil society through its origins and evolution, the forces that shape one tend to shape the other.” Philanthropy’s evolution has been marked by increasing instrumentalism, in the forms of proceduralism and outcome-oriented intervention (as indicated by the adoption of “the business model”).
Philanthropy has been transformed to such an extent that, in order to fill the void in civil society, foundations would need “to change ordinary operating assumptions” as well as “address the limitations of a culture of increasing managerialism.” They would have to adopt the new goal of “promoting values of citizenship and civic obligation and …support[ing] activities directed toward strengthening the character and cohesiveness of civic life.” In order to be judged effective, concluded Sievers, foundations would have to change “the quality of public discourse” itself.
At the Bradley Center’s public discussion of the essay, Indiana University’s LESLIE LENKOWSKY and Independent Sector’s PETER SHIRAS commented on the text, and WILLIAM SCHAMBRA served as moderator. Discussion brought out panelists’ differences with Sievers’ diagnosis of civil society’s and philanthropy’s ills, and their own suggestions of steps necessary to reinvigorate civil society.
Sievers’ introductory summary of his essay further explored ways philanthropy might “fill the void,” as he had written. It is possible for philanthropy to address the underlying issues of civil society, Sievers told the panel and audience, if philanthropy “make[s] it its task to overcome its own fragmentation and instrumentalism.” Sievers suggested that a number of foundations band together to tackle the issues of civic education, the commercial media, and the political process, which together would “strengthen the civil society platform.”
Leslie Lenkowsky was the first to take issue with Sievers’ description of the problem; Lenkowsky attributed a weakening of civil society to the growth of government and, to a much lesser extent, to the rise of instrumentalism in philanthropy. As for philanthropy, the sector shows many positive trends. “The bloom is off” the accumulation of staff at large foundations, the mark of instrumentalism, Lenkowsky stated. He went on to describe a foundation world teeming with local initiatives, including social enterprise and in-your-own-backyard giving. Hardly the stuff of civic breakdown.
At the same time, there are things philanthropy can do to strengthen civil society, Lenkowsky continued. Foundations need to take seriously the lack of understanding of many Americans of what it means to be a citizen, Lenkowsky said, citing the work of the Carnegie Corporation as exemplary. Second, philanthropy ought to talk more about “philanthropy properly understood”—the worthiness of what one does with one’s money. The third and final thing philanthropy can do to strengthen civil society, Lenkowsky continued, is to create circumstances for others to be philanthropic, under which he included giving to religious organizations.
PETER SHIRAS took issue with Sievers’ juxtaposition of instrumentalism in philanthropy and a decline in values. Shiras suggested that developments in and—more importantly—between the market and the state (in an “interlocking relationship”) have stifled the ability of civil society to make diverse values known. Shiras cited expensive election campaigns, redistricting, barriers to voting, and disenfranchisement (of, for example, convicted felons) as examples of how “the forces within the state and the market have given rise to this values crisis.”
Shiras would have foundations address the “series of structural barriers in our market system, in our political system.” Philanthropy’s role (at least until corrective government measures are taken) is to continue programs that express values—for example, programs of redistribution and bridging social capital. These, in Shiras’ view, could be just as effective a way for philanthropy to promote civic engagement as foundation programs for civic education in schools.
In their responses to one another, both Sievers and Lenkowsky agreed with Shiras that encroachment by the market and the state into the realm of civil society is a danger, but Sievers did not share Shiras’ skepticism about civil society’s ability to correct the situation: “I think we can look to civil society as a platform for the democratic process, and we can look to the roots and practice of civil society to understand [institutional] gridlock and what can be done about it.” Despite the differences in their views and ultimate goals, Shiras, Sievers, and Lenkowsky found common ground in their belief in the necessity of “a set of core values” in philanthropy, built upon “a set of normative judgments.” Sievers put forward “civic ethos” (above and beyond civic action) as one such normative value.
This event was attended by nearly forty people, several of whom had questions for the panelists, including Ambassador Curtin Winsor of the William H. Donner Foundation, Newhouse News Service’s Mark O’Keefe, David Reingold of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Mark Rosenman of The Union Institute.
This event transcript was prepared from an audio recording and edited by Krista Shaffer. To request further information on this event, the transcript, or the Bradley Center, please contact Hudson Institute at (202) 974-2424 or e-mail Krista at firstname.lastname@example.org.