October 20, 2005
by Martin Lehfeldt
AS THE executive of a membership organization of grantmakers, I am professionally value-neutral on the subject of what people should support. Our association has hundreds of generous institutional members whose leaders run the gamut from liberal social activists to extreme conservatives. It is not my job to question the worth of any philanthropy. So long as someone’s charity is not doing harm to others, I try not to stand in judgment.
At a more personal level, I applaud every time anyone succumbs to a charitable impulse. From my perspective, any concrete demonstration of love for humankind by a gift or a voluntary act of kindness is both noble and ennobling. I also consider a sense of responsibility for one’s neighbor to be not simply a tenet of my religious faith but also one of the highest expressions of citizenship.
However, the longer I remain in the field of philanthropy, the more convinced I become that we may too often be trying to measure effective grantmaking by the wrong criteria. Instead of asking questions like “Should philanthropy be responsive or strategic?” we might be better served by scrutinizing the ultimate purposes of our philanthropy. It could well be that motive trumps methodology.
Our organization’s board recently adopted a set of six guiding principles that it soon will offer to the membership as a guide to responsible and accountable philanthropy. The first states simply: “We will strive to serve the public good.” At one level, as a cynic observed, “That sounds like something from the Boy Scout oath.” However, the longer you study that axiom, the more challenging it becomes. What, after all, is the public good?
Foundations exist because of a contract they have forged with government. Our lawmakers have determined that they are willing to forego taxing the wealth that creates foundation assets with the understanding that those resources will be used to benefit all of society. However, if portions of that society do not benefit from foundation largesse, isn’t it reasonable to ask whether philanthropy is completely fulfilling the terms of its contract.
As an example, people who labor in the foundation vineyard have a very clear sense of how the gap is widening between the rich and the disenfranchised of the world. They regularly read grant proposals from the helping agencies that approach them for assistance. And yet, despite valiant efforts by some parts of the field, organized philanthropy has a less than stellar track record of improving the lives of those who are fighting just to hang on.
Granted, foundation giving has indeed helped to soften the burden of poverty for many people. Nonetheless, that kind of charitable support is very different from helping people to lead self-sufficient lives – something that the renowned philosopher and physician, Maimonides, placed at the top of his hierarchy of giving. What would happen, one wonders, if organized philanthropy were to mobilize its growing resources for an all-out campaign to ensure a living wage for every employed person in the country?
Here’s another example. Comm
Martin Lehfeldt is president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations.
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