Lamar Alexander’s contribution to philanthropy

Dec 21, 2020

As chairman of the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, he urged “more of ourselves instead of more government.”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is retiring after more than five decades’ worth of public service when his term ends next January. He has served as Governor of his state, U.S. Secretary of Education, and U.S. Senator, and he was a presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. After a farewell address earlier this month in front of his Senate colleagues, they gave him a standing ovation.

Alexander’s policymaking legacy includes constant and steadfast support of parental choice in education, with which we are familiar from our work in philanthropy on the same issue.

His career also includes a notable contribution to philanthropy, with which some of us were also involved. He served as chairman of the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal in 1996 and 1997. The Commission was funded by Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where we worked.

Under Alexander’s principled and steady leadership, as characterized by the Hoover Institution, the Commission became “the most significant work on the value of private charitable efforts since the report of the Filer Commission in 1975.” Its final report in September 1997, Giving Better, Giving Smarter, remains highly relevant to any meaningful discussion about the purpose and practices of grantmaking and the nonprofit sector.

An edited version of Alexander’s inspiring introduction to Giving Better, Giving Smarter is below. With his kind demeanor and neighborly bearing, we certainly hope he remains in public life, including as the kind of community-building citizen for which the Commission urged more backing.


President Bill Clinton’s 1997 Summit on Volunteering issued a call for “Big Citizenship.” This report calls for something quite different, the creation of a new army of individual donors and volunteers, “civic entrepreneurs,” who invest their own time and money in rebuilding their own families, neighborhoods, places of worship, and schools. Here is the difference.

Big Citizenship—for example, government workers paid to help the poor—is not volunteering. It is more government, which is not what is most needed. Government can explore space, defend our country, keep  the dollar sound, protect the environment, help pay for health care, and protect individual rights. But the era of big government is now proclaimed to be over mostly because we have come to realize that government can’t solve the moral problems that worry us the most today.

Government may replace income by offering food stamps, but government is not so good at helping someone get on his or her feet and stay there, to find and keep a job, to reject drugs, to develop willpower, or to love a child.

To rebuild our deteriorating families and neighborhoods, we need more of ourselves instead of more government. No country is more capable of doing this or more inclined to do it. We Americans are already the most generous and our propensity to volunteer is unmatched. For the job of restoring broken community institutions, this giving of ourselves should be our secret weapon.

Our private actions can be personal, flexible, local, inexpensive, controversial, and work hand in hand with religion—all of which are uncharacteristic of government.

Unfortunately, as government has become a large blunt instrument, private giving has too often become a small blunt instrument—usually for the same reasons. Too many precious charitable dollars are spent in too much study, too much talking, too little service, and far too little hard-nosed evaluation of what they get for our money. There is too much distance between donors and donees. Some charities have become too dependent on government. Some have even started to act like government, creating a “philanthropy establishment.”

Too much philanthropy wants to change the world, instead of help someone or fix a problem.

Americans are at our best when we innovate, remember our values, and build strong communities. Our greatness has come from pilgrims, pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and astronauts—not from government. In that spirit, instead of spawning a new government-sponsored “Big Citizenship,” we should enlist and nourish a new type of donor and volunteer—millions of “civic entrepreneurs” who invest their time and money in strengthening their own families, neighborhood, places of worship, and schools.

Our Commission report is designed to be a snapshot of giving in America today and road map for the new army of those individuals who see their giving, their volunteering, and their citizenship as our country’s secret weapon for rebuilding community institutions. Our Commission’s goal is to reorient American giving toward independent, community-based, results-oriented organizations that have a genuine impact on people and neighborhoods.