March 17, 2005
by Marvin Olasky
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on goals and intentions in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
SINCE IT IS spring training time, I’ll start with baseball metaphors: Many philanthropists in recent decades have aspired to be the table-setters, getting on base with singles or doubles so that the pumped-up slugger-on-steroids, government, can come to bat and drive in everyone with a grand slam. Many philanthropists have also ignored inner-city community organizations already in existence—most frequently, churches—and sent up pinch-hitters, new organizations that can purportedly out-slug the old.
Philanthropists who become aware of a problem typically shout out the cliché, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” It would be much better to say, “Don’t just do something, watch what the community is doing.” Program officers, instead of selecting someone to do a hard job, should see who is already doing it, probably in a part-time and under-equipped way, and should then help that person to do more. Most organizations should be pro-active, but foundations should deliberately be reactive, responding to and helping good community initiatives rather than creating new ones.
Watching and waiting requires philanthropic humility. It’s ego gratifying for philanthropists to be the producers of American Idol or Star Search, jump-starting the careers of winners. It’s harder to wait and let a community select its own leaders, but foundations instead of making selections should concentrate on certifying and helping those who are already doing the job. This is similar to the way a good church selects elders: find out who already is a leader, counselor, and dispenser of wisdom, and certify that person.
A group that comes to a foundation as the Scarecrow or Tin Woodsman approach the Wizard of Oz, asking for a brain or a heart, is not a group worth supporting. A group that already has a brain and a heart can benefit from the Wizard’s endorsement. A foundation can add to what’s already there, perhaps oiling tin joints, but it cannot give anything new. It especially cannot give courage, which is probably the quality most needed for effective poverty-fighting.
Reversing the pattern of foundation activism and teaching philanthropists to aspire to at most an Oscar for best supporting actor, is a huge task. Finding recipients who have already embarked on jobs that need doing, and have the potential to do even more, takes a lot of scouting and listening. And that’s only the first step: the next one is to find out how and what to give in a way that doesn’t leave a community group undersupplied but also doesn’t give it more money than it can handle. Call it the pH factor, for philanthropic humility: Too much money given to a worthy recipient can be acidic, but too little can be alkaline.
Off-the-charts acidity often results when government starts dropping dollars on a project. Two decades of site visits have shown me that governmental bureaucracy is hazardous to community health, and that churches can build bonds of attachment far stronger than the gossamer chords cut from parachutes of dropped-off activists. Sadly, American philanthropy over the past fifty years has often been pro-government and, in practice if not necessarily in philosophy, anti-church (unless the churches have become government look-alikes).
Would my prescription leave foundation program officers straining at the leash? Perhaps, but they will still have plenty to do, in part because it’s more time-consuming to hand out many small grants rather than a few big ones. Furthermore, if their attitude is supportive rather than condescending—I hope not to see signs in foundation offices stating, “We pride ourselves on our humility”—the broad experience they bring can help the mom-and-pop outfits and church groups in many ways.
For example, a former professional baseball player in Houston with little education but a big heart had a recreation-and-mentoring program to which kids flocked, but what could be generously described as his “business plan” consisted of chicken tracks on a roll of paper—until a foundation person helped him to communicate in a way that could attract other donors. Leaders at a soup kitchen in New York that fed thousands were frustrated about seeing the same people month after month, because they realized they were enabling people to stay in poverty rather than challenging them to climb out of it—and an outside expert was able to connect them with other groups that had admitted to the same problem and were finding ways to change.
The Presbyterian Church has a poor nomenclature for its non-pastoral church leaders: “ruling elder.” The title leads some elders to think kingly thoughts, but those who do the job well see themselves as “serving elders.” What should today’s philanthropy aim to do? To serve the real lovers of mankind, those who are on the streets everyday and not in the suites. The lives of those in the front lines of charity will never be air conditioned, but bringing a cup of cold water and a fan can make a huge difference.
Marvin Olasky is a senior fellow of the Acton Institute, professor at the University of Texas, and the editor of World magazine.
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