Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On the Moral Life of Philanthropy

From “The Moral Case for Change” by Gara LaMarche originally published by Yes! Magazine:

The author strikes a salient point regarding the efficacy of giving. There must be will. There must be direction. There must be risk. It is the risk that creates reward. Moving philanthropic endeavors into the political realm is the form of a new diplomacy. Imagine capturing the competitiveness of the free markets in the capacity of giving. The convergence of the private sector ambition and not-for-profit altruism would change the world for the better for all humans. Philanthropy and Humanism, although distinct, go together hand in hand. Both function to grow the awareness of ethics, humanity, and progress. Giving charitably highlights human values which expresses a commitment to improve human welfare in this world. (Of course, human welfare is understood in the context of our interdependence upon the environment and other living things.) Ethical principles should be evaluated by their consequences for people.

The Moral Life Of Philanthropy

The world of philanthropy needs to strike a better balance in arguing for change. Most philanthropic mission statements focus on “solving problems” or “addressing issues,” but shy away from stating explicit and sometimes politically volatile goals. Even the foundations comfortable supporting public policy advocacy tend to avoid discussing it or making any effort to knit their disparate issues into a larger frame.

Many foundations are increasingly influenced by public opinion research, which has a strong place in any social change effort. But if the research is not closely hinged to first principles, to fundamental values, it cannot be a tool for meaningful change.

Pollsters have told me that the best way to get public and legislative approval of progressive measures on immigration or prisoner re-entry is to cast it in punitive terms—requiring undocumented immigrants to become citizens or forcing prisoners to get a high school equivalency diploma—tilting a majority toward reform. But this approach accepts pernicious stereotypes that will come back to haunt us.

In our everyday lives as activists and donors, are we more likely to support an organization based on its tax status and effectiveness rating, or based on our passion for its goals and principles?

In 1976, the philanthropist Paul Ylvisaker wrote: “Philanthropy [must] move out of fixed and safe positions into more independent, flexible and far more exposed stances between the contradictory forces that are generating tension, and without the resolving action of some agent such as philanthropy, will otherwise tear nations and neighborhoods apart.”

And yet foundations today too often are entrenched in those fixed and safe positions. If they speak out, it is more likely to be about the preservation of tax exemptions and payout rates. During the Bush years, it was hard to find a voice in American philanthropy raised in protest of tax cuts or the wars.

In recent years, a number of foundations have formed what might be called an “effectiveness movement” in philanthropy, with the idea that good intentions are not enough. Atlantic{} has been deeply engaged in this movement, supporting the creation of organizations like The Bridgespan Group and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to help nonprofits and grantmakers set smarter benchmarks and assess impact. But this movement is now finding that there is no real constituency for effectiveness, as such. Like our politics, it’s easy to see why: values move people to enthusiasm and action, not sterile concepts of metrics and results.

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