The New Atlantis
October 1, 2013
by William A. Schambra
Philanthropy has many wonderful qualities — and never tires of proclaiming them, for one quality it sorely lacks is humility. It regularly thumps itself on the back, for instance, for devoting some $300 billion a year to good causes. And though philanthropic spending on social causes is dwarfed by that of the government, foundations proudly claim that dollar for dollar their spending is in fact more effective than the government’s. While government tends to stick with the safe and the routine, philanthropy regularly and energetically seeks out the next new thing; it claims it is at the cutting edge of social change, being innovative, scientific, and progressive. Philanthropy, as legendary Ford Foundation program officer Paul Ylvisaker once claimed, is society’s “passing gear.”
Indeed, philanthropy increasingly prides itself on its ability to shape and guide government spending, testing out potential solutions for social problems and then aggressively advocating for their replication by government. Any employee of a philanthropic organization can immediately tick off a list of major accomplishments of American foundations, all of which followed this pattern of bold experimentation leading to government adoption. For example, Andrew Carnegie’s library program pledged funding to construct the buildings, if the local municipalities would provide the sites and help pay for the libraries’ operation. The Rockefeller Foundation funded a moderately successful hookworm abatement program in the southern United States, which strongly involved local governments. The Ford Foundation’s “gray areas” project in the 1960s experimented with new approaches to urban poverty that then became the basis for the Great Society’s War on Poverty.
And yet, in all this deafening clamor of self-approbation, we rarely hear from these foundations about another undertaking that bears all the strategic hallmarks of American philanthropy’s much-touted successes, with far more significant results: that the first American foundations were deeply immersed in eugenics — the effort to promote the reproduction of the “fit” and to suppress the reproduction of the “unfit.”
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Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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