April 29, 2007
by William A. Schambra
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At the Council on Foundations' 2007 Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington, William Schambra gave these remarks. A video of the discussion, entitled "Combatting Poverty," can be found on the Council's web site - click here.
IN ALL MATTERS relating to poverty and philanthropy, I take my bearings from Family House, a small charity in Milwaukee founded and run by Cordelia Taylor. Of all the many debts I owe to Bob Woodson, who’s on a panel immediately following this, perhaps the greatest is his bringing Mrs. Taylor to the attention of the Bradley Foundation, where I previously worked.
Mrs. Taylor is a nursing home administrator who had become disenchanted with the inhumane procedures of the large facilities where she had been working. So she opened her own community-based senior care facility, located in the house on 11th Street where she had raised her family.
The neighborhood had deteriorated badly since then. But that made it the ideal place to provide services for the low-income seniors who were closest to her heart. The demand was such that she soon expanded to the house next door, then to another and another, until today Family House includes most of the block.
The houses are now connected by a wooden ramp, surrounding a pleasant garden with a fountain in the middle. For many of the impoverished residents who pass their last days here, it is the nicest place they will ever have lived.
Mrs. Taylor has earned her share of plaudits for her work. Readers' Digest featured Family House in one of its issues; Oprah has had her on the show; and The Today Show's Al Roker stopped in with his cameras and a truckload of gifts. And yet for all her incredible work, for all the recognition she has earned, she has been unable to attract support from any of the nation's larger foundations. So what's the problem?
You all know the answer. Mrs. Taylor's Family House, no matter how wonderful or inspiring, is a mere charity. And large, modern, sophisticated foundations don't do charity. They do root causes philanthropy.
Root causes philanthropy, as Alice O'Connor reminds us in her terrific new book Social Science for What?, marking the centenary of the Russell Sage Foundation, has sought for a century now to deploy the sciences of nature and society in an attack on the invisible but potent social forces that produce poverty in the first place.
But this means that philanthropy becomes the province of the university-educated professional and the trained expert who have mastered those sciences. Only they can design and execute programs of sufficient mass and complexity as to tackle all the intricately interrelated causal factors at the same time. In this view, nonprofit grantees are useful only insofar as they carry out the program as designed at foundation headquarters.
It's pretty clear what this means for Mrs. Taylor, as well as thousands of other local, grassroots leaders who have stepped forward to attack poverty in their own neighborhoods, in their own way. They may have lived with and served the poor all their lives. But that actually works against them.
It means they're too caught up in the immediate and urgent needs of those around them - too busy dealing with everyday details - to step back and coolly appraise the situation with the detached and objective eye of the expert.
They often foolishly rely on religious faith or other kinds of folk wisdom to sustain their energies and guide their work, because they haven't taken those university classes on the causes and consequences of poverty. Mrs. Taylor may make for a warm and inspiring story, suitable for showcasing by Oprah and Roker, but that doesn't qualify her for a grant from a large, modern, sophisticated foundation.
Now, there are many problems with root causes philanthropy. For one thing, foundations, like the scholars they fund, keep changing their minds about what the root causes of poverty are. Sometimes it's sociological deprivation, sometimes psychological depression, sometimes cultural dysfunction, sometimes political manipulation.
One promising new explanation follows another, each dismissing the last as manifestly foolish and antiquated, even though just yesterday, it had been the lavishly funded new approach. Small high schools are so yesterday. Today, it's national standards and merit pay for teachers. All the while, nonprofit grantees scramble furiously, constantly revising their proposals in order to catch up with the root cause du jour.
Sometimes our search for root causes has led us down dark and dangerous paths. For several decades, it appeared to some as if the root cause of poverty was faulty genetics. If only we could get rid of their human carriers, through the root cause science of eugenics, we could finally conquer poverty.
For all philanthropy's proud claim to learn from its mistakes, you will search foundation histories in vain for so much as a glancing reference to their heavy investment in eugenics - much less a consideration of its lessons for philanthropy today.
One thing we know for sure. The entire justification for root causes philanthropy was its promise to get down to and eradicate the sources of poverty once and for all. Once you've "taught a man to fish," you no longer have to provide the fish. But we've been saying that for one hundred years. As this panel today attests, our much vaunted sciences have not grazed, much less eliminated, the root causes of poverty. For all our fishing lessons, people still need fish.
But the most telling indictment of root causes philanthropy, I think, is this: it sends an incredibly patronizing and demoralizing message to grassroots leaders like Mrs. Taylor. It says to them?you're not only poor, but you don't even know why, and you don't know what to do about it.
Ironically - sadly - the foundation world thereby adds the insult of intellectual contempt to the injury of material poverty.
As we consider new approaches to poverty, I would hope that perhaps just one substantial foundation in America will have the courage to face the truth, by admitting that its experts don't have - and based on one hundred years of broken promises, aren't likely ever to have - the final answer to poverty.
Instead, that foundation could embrace the realization that every day, thousands of grassroots leaders in low-income neighborhoods across the nation and around the world take small, incremental steps to better the lives of their neighbors.
In the work of these grassroots leaders, there is no grand fix, no magic bullet, no once and for all root causes solution. There are instead small, daily, incremental steps toward making low-income lives better.
A foundation could do worse than to seek out and fund these grassroots leaders. Just as important as the specific projects supported would be the message it would send to low-income communities: We are fully open to the wisdom and experience you bring the table, trusting you to know best how to tackle your own problems.
We will no longer turn our backs on you, or make you contort your proposals to fit our narrow and ever-changing approaches to poverty, or force you into consortiums and collaboratives that waste more of your time and energy than our grants are worth. Mrs. Taylor, tell us what you think should be done to alleviate poverty.
This isn't charity, or dealing only with symptoms, or putting band-aids on problems. It's establishing the moral precondition of any successful effort to alleviate poverty. It treats human beings - no matter their economic status - as creative, resilient, self-governing citizens, fully capable of understanding and changing their own world.
Lessons from International Grantmaking
Talking to Rebecca Adamson at First Peoples Worldwide, we can learn this lesson from international grantmaking: that major philanthropy neglects genuine grassroots groups around the world ever bit as much as here at home. She points out that the major international funders focus on the larger NGOs that spend most of their time lobbying and advocating before international organizations, claiming to represent indigenous peoples. But the grassroots organizations founded by the indigenous peoples themselves are completely ignored. First Peoples Worldwide, she tells me, has chosen issue of biodiversity conservation as an exemplary project. As she argues, biodiversity conservation is intimately a part of the culture of indigenous peoples - they support their own traditional medicine, their food systems, their spiritual and moral lives, in harmony with the environment. The traditional cultures and local biodiversity are interwoven, and consequently both are preserved. But all the funding, from public and private aid agencies, goes toward establishing national parks and protected areas, which result in the eviction of indigenous peoples. That means that we lose sensible stewardship of biodiversity, as well as working an incredible injustice against indigenous peoples, who are now thrown into the worst sort of poverty, both economic and cultural.
A more sensible, grassroots focused philanthropy would avert that kind of problem. But it would mean that we would need to learn the lesson of Bill Easterly's book, which I commend highly. It's title is The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, which pretty much tells you what it's about. His point is that aid agencies, public and private, have spent something like $2.3 trillion over the past half century in international development. But it's been based on massive, top-down plans designed by the experts, and so the effort has failed. We need to stop being planners, in his view, and start being searchers - to look around carefully and find the small, local, grassroots efforts that are making small but real advances against poverty.
To answer this question, I think we need to heed the lessons of the last time we launched a war on poverty, during the Great Society. One of the primary problems of that effort was that it was undertaken not by the poor, but on behalf of the poor. It had no real grounding in the culture and aspirations of low-income communities. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at the time that this was an inevitable outcome of what he called the "professionalization of reform." He argued that reform movements were not going to be built on democratic mass movements in the future, but rather were going to be driven by reform-minded professional elites, based on social science interventions and funded by foundations and government. In the end, he thought, that's exactly what made the war on poverty so fragile and short-lived.
This was true even though the war on poverty aimed, through its community action element, to incorporate the views of low-income communities. The problem was, as Moynihan put it, the genuine community leaders like pastors of the major churches were by-passed or ignored, and ideological activists were funded instead, who claimed to be spokespersons for the poor, but whose chief claim to funding was that they knew how to manipulate the funders' stereotypes about what community activists should look like.
This illustrates a dilemma for foundations - that it's very hard to escape the box created by the professionalization of reform. Having expressed the wish to base a new war on poverty on racial and ethnic alliances, those alliances will most assuredly appear, because there are any number of nonprofits who will claim to expressing those coalitions, if that's what it now takes to be funded. Foundations will soon be surrounded by all sorts of coalitions, and will be able to tell themselves that these are genuinely representatives. It takes a special kind of discipline for a foundation to push beyond this immediate and highly visible layer of nonprofits to true grassroots community leaders.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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