Published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy
June 25, 2007
by William A. Schambra
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MOST FOUNDATIONS are driven by the conviction that they must not waste money on charity, which simply puts Band-Aids on society's problems. Rather, they must try to get to the problems' root causes, thereby solving them once and for all. After a full century of efforts to follow this rule, it's time to ask: Is it anything more than a mindless mantra?
The question arose recently when Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, took umbrage in an essay in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at claims by a "new generation" of "entrepreneurs turned philanthropists" that they, unlike the "old" foundations, were going to be "ambitious, entrepreneurial, innovative, and focused on measurable results."
That was grossly unfair, she insisted, because well-established foundations like hers had "performed generations of work strategically aimed at root causes of enormous problems."
Indeed, as early as the 1890s John D. Rockefeller insisted that "the best philanthropy is constantly in search for finalities — a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source." But more than 100 years later, why are the results so negligible as to escape altogether the notice of newcomers?
Perhaps it is not as easy as the familiar mantra suggests to identify the causes of society's problems.
For instance, Frederick Gates, an early adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation, believed that "disease is the supreme ill of human life, and it is the main source of almost all other human ills — poverty, crime, ignorance, vice, inefficiency, hereditary taint, and many other evils."
Consequently, the early Rockefeller Foundation poured money into medicine and public health, convinced that social and economic conditions would improve in due course.
Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seems to share the conviction that combating disease is the key to alleviating poverty, as it pumps billions of dollars into the fight against AIDS, malaria, and other health problems of the developing world.
But is disease the cause and poverty the result, or is it the other way around?
That's the question posed by Anne-Emanuelle Birn, an expert in international health policy at the University of Toronto.
In a recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, she insists that the Gates foundation's public-health efforts will have only limited results because they reflect "a narrowly conceived understanding of health as the product of technical interventions divorced from economic, social, and political contexts."
Global health "might be better served," she insists, "through political support for universal, accessible, and comprehensive public-health systems…in the context of overall improvements in living and working conditions."
In her view, fighting disease will not end poverty. Rather, reducing poverty through redistribution of wealth and a robust social-welfare state is the best way to fight disease. Far from getting at root causes, the Gateses' billions are only focusing on symptoms.
A similar difficulty arises with another major "root cause" solution long championed by the Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Ford foundations. Looking askance at early philanthropy's obsession with physical illness, Raymond Fosdick, president of Rockefeller from 1936 to 1948, cautioned in The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation that "unless we can find successful solutions to some of the intricately complex and fast-growing problems of human relationship, we run the risk of having a world in which public health and medicine are of little significance."
The effort to solve "problems of human relationship" called for fresh approaches to root causes, this time guided by new social or behavioral sciences like sociology, psychology, and political science. For three decades beginning in the 1920s, then, the major foundations devoted substantial money to these academic disciplines, aiming to get to the sources of "fear, hate, guilt, and aggressiveness," which were, in Mr. Fosdick's view, "the forces which bring about the disintegration of human society."
Statesmen enlightened by social-science expertise would now be amenable to "social arrangements through conscious planning and mutual agreement," rather than through the dangerous, ideological "struggle of opposing forces."
The notion that a truly scientific understanding of human behavior will enable us finally to resolve human conflicts still appeals to grant makers looking for ultimate answers.
But recently, progressive or "social change" philanthropy has argued that behavioralism may compound, rather than solve, society's largest problems. Like its predecessors, this brand of philanthropy focuses on root causes. But now, as Tracy Gary puts it in Inspired Philanthropy, it is interested in "the root causes of disadvantage or practices that threaten values such as equity or a healthy planet," among which are "exploitation, racism, sexism, and homophobia."
In this view, the behavioral sciences may simply provide tools for the clever manipulation of the masses by the ruling elites, enabling them to conceal and preserve the deeply rooted inequities of race, gender, and class from which they benefit.
Even the public-policy changes supported by liberal foundations are designed chiefly to "divert protest into safe channels," argues Joan Roelofs, an emerita professor of political science at Keene State College, siphoning off or neutralizing the political aggression and anger that, if properly harnessed to mass movements, would lead to real change.
By contrast, as the sociologists Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy suggest in Foundations for Social Change, genuinely effective philanthropy pursues "movement-building strategies that aim to eradicate the causes of social and environmental injustice as grounded in larger political-economic power relations of American capitalism, rather than merely providing stopgap solutions that treat the symptoms but not the cause."
The "struggle of opposing forces" was, for Mr. Fosdick, part of the problem to be solved by foundations. But for progressive philanthropy, it's part of the root-cause solution instead, as foundations mobilize movements to rise against capitalist inequities in the name of a radically different, if only vaguely defined, political and economic system.
For more than one hundred years, foundations have thus grasped at often deeply divergent physiological, sociological, and political solutions to human problems, with today's cutting-edge, root-cause solution morphing into tomorrow's charitable Band-Aid. There's nothing wrong with trying different approaches, of course, or putting together various combinations of them. Indeed, some observers suggest that experimentation and variety are among philanthropy's chief virtues.
But the implacable logic of root causes demands far more than casually dabbling with this or that approach, or stirring in a little bit of everything. It insists that, backed with enough resources and steeled against the superficial and distracting symptoms of social malfunction, the professionally equipped expert — whether the medical investigator, the social scientist, or the progressive organizer — can penetrate to the very core of a problem, coming up with a decisive solution that will remove it once and for all as a public concern. Short of "curing evils," all else is mere coping with effects, or charity.
Given the pitiless resolve of root-cause approaches, it's just as well that foundations tend to pull back before their logic reaches its limits. For instance, as suggested by Frederick Gates's mention of "hereditary taint," the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations once avidly supported experts in eugenics, who argued that defective genes were the chief source of human misfortune. The root-cause solution was to sterilize the genetically "unfit." The foundations quietly dropped this approach after Nazi Germany's race program suggested where eugenic logic inexorably leads — but not before some 50,000 Americans had experienced philanthropy's "solution."
Similarly, we are fortunate that only a handful of foundations buy into the notion of root causes championed by progressive philanthropy. The 20th century gave us more than enough experience with the belief that human problems can be solved only by mass movements mobilized behind the overthrow of capitalism in the name of radically egalitarian utopias.
At any rate, after a century of trying one approach after another, it would be difficult to identify a single significant social problem to the roots of which philanthropy has penetrated, thereby finally resolving it. Small wonder, then, that new "entrepreneurs turned philanthropists" look about and conclude that strategic, results-oriented grant making has yet to be tried.
If new donors are not to travel the same prideful path of vaulting promises followed by disappointing results, however, they should forgo the fruitless and even dangerous search for grand, conclusive answers to our difficulties. Instead, they should take a closer look at the thousands of charities that have come up with solid, modest approaches to smaller, more limited aspects of problems.
Such groups do not brush impatiently past symptoms as presented by those who suffer them, treating them as distractions en route to underlying problems comprehensible only to experts. Rather, they take seriously the immediate concerns of those before them and focus on them, in the name of human dignity and democratic responsiveness.
This approach is, of course, derided as contemptible charity by die-hard believers in the search for root causes. But after a century of frantic and futile pursuit of ultimate answers, it's time to reconsider charity as a more sensible alternative. That's better than wasting ever more millions on behalf of a mantra without meaning.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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