A conversation with Howard Husock about civil society and philanthropy (Part 2 of 2)

Feb 10, 2022

The American Enterprise Institute senior fellow talks to Michael E. Hartmann about donor-advised funds and anonymous giving through them, as well as the large, mostly progressive foundations’ influence and self-perpetuating non-accountability.

A senior fellow in domestic policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Howard Husock’s research and writing focuses on municipal government, urban housing policy, civil society, and philanthropy. Before joining AEI, Husock was a senior executive fellow at the Philanthropy Roundtable, prior to which he was vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, to which he came from begin director of case studies in public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School.

His most-recent book is The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It. His other, previous books include Philanthropy Under Fire and Who Killed Civil Society?: The Rise of Big Government and Bourgeois Norms (reviewed here)

Husock’s more-recent work on civil society and philanthropy includes two AEI reports—last year’s Is Civil Society Becoming a Luxury Good?, with Laura Olesen, and last month’s Anonymous Giving Through Donor-Advised Funds.


Using census data, Is Civil Society Becoming a Luxury Good? examines whether participation in private, voluntary groups comprising civil society in America might be tied to income. “In three of four states examined—California, New York, and Texas—high-income census blocks, or census blocks in which there is a significant presence of high-income households, have more civil-society-type organizations,” according to Husock and Oleson.

“Civil society’s role in creating social trust makes it important to identify ways to reinforce and rebuild civil society in lower-income communities,” they write.

In Anonymous Giving Through Donor-Advised Funds, Husock reviews grant data from the five largest sponsors of donor-advised funds (DAFs)—including the public charities connected to the Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab financial-services firms. Anonymous grants comprise only 4.3% of these five sponsors’ funds, his study finds. “It also shows that grants in the anonymous category that may include support for public policy matters include a small minority (12 percent) of that small group.

“Most anonymous giving supports well-known and noncontroversial organizations,” moreover, “including American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Salvation Army.”

Husock was kind enough to join me for a conversation last week. In the first part of our discussion, which is here, we talk about his career, the Civil Society Awards Program, and the AEI reports on whether civil society is a “luxury good” and DAFs.

In the conversation’s second part—the almost 15-and-a-half-minute video below—Husock talks more about civil society and philanthropy, DAFs and anonymous giving through them in particular, and the large, mostly progressive foundations’ influence and self-perpetuating non-accountability.

Husock and Hartmann

Through DAFs, “if ‘dark money’ is a bad thing, left-liberal groups are actually among the leaders in receiving it,” Husock tells me.

Addressing some progressives’ criticism of DAF providers for facilitating support of conversative organizations unfairly labeled “hate groups,” he says, “To its credit, to date, Fidelity—despite being under attack—has said, We will allow our donor-advisors to direct their funds to any IRS-approved nonprofits. I think that’s a very defensible and, in fact, the only defensible position.”

And addressing some conservatives’ questioning of anonymous philanthropic support for certain progressive groups, Husock says “I think suspicion can be well placed,” but “shouldn’t lead us to assume bad motives.

“I feel it’s important to encourage more and more Americans to donate to charity—both because charities do good works” and “because, as I said earlier, that’s the oxygen of civil society,” he concludes.

Establishment foundations “are really quite unaccountable … I think we need to be concerned about the large progressive foundations and their influence and their self-perpetuating and non-accountability.”