Revisiting the “Vision and Philanthropy” symposium after 15 years: Barbara Elliott

Mar 12, 2020

There is a Great Divide.

Many have long thought that “the key to success for conservative philanthropy is its willingness to give imaginatively and consistently, and according to a larger, coherent vision …. But what is the conservative vision for American today? And how can philanthropy best promote it?”

Those were the general questions posed by the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal at the first Bradley Symposium in Washington, D.C., 15 years ago last month, “Vision and Philanthropy.” They’re certainly still being asked today—maybe even more pointedly, given all of that which has occurred in the interim.

The Symposia used to be held on the mornings of the Bradley Prizes evening gala. That first one in 2005, moderated by Amy Kass, occurred amidst what might now be considered quite-heady times for conservatism. President George W. Bush had just been inaugurated to his second term, and reading the event’s edited transcript, one can certainly sense an overriding confidence—but, maybe in between the lines, a little bit of an underlying disquiet about the future, as well.

The Giving Review has gathered comments from some panelists who participated in the discussion, merely seeking any brief updates, reconsiderations, reiterations, and/or revisions they might be willing to share.

As conservatives, what did we get and do right since then? What did we miss and/or do wrong? How can we do better? Where could and should we be after the next 15 years, in 2035? How can philanthropy help get us there? How can it do better?

Juxtaposed with excerpts of here original comments in 2005, below are Barbara Elliott’s comments. In ’05, Elliott was president of the Center for Cultural Renewal. She is now a professor at Houston Baptist University.


Edited excerpts from Barbara Elliott at “Vision and Philanthropy” symposium, February 2005:

There have been two concurrent debates, I think, about the nature of conservative thought, and one has focused specifically on what the proper role of the government is, what policy can dictate, and the other, earlier side of the conservative debate had much more to do with what the individual ought to do with the freedom that is carved out in the personal realm.

In recent years, I would say to some extent the conservative movement has … devoted an awful lot of time and energy and resources to policy, which is, in and of itself, necessary…. [but] we have neglected the arguments that center on civil society, on personal initiative, on community, on family, and … faith.

We have, in a sense, won a lot of the policy wars but we’re losing the cultural war …. We’re losing that side of the debate because we have not yet come up, as a movement, with a good answer to the question, when you have freedom, what do you then do with it? 


Let me just tick off a couple of the issues where I think we clearly are losing the battle, and that would include drug addiction …; certainly the rate of inner city crime …; fatherless America, which we are dealing with, rates of illegitimacy … are still at catastrophic levels; the rate of recidivism—people going to prison and recycling through again with at least a 60, perhaps 65% chance of going back or committing new crimes over the next three years. 

However, the little engines of renewal that are doing a pretty remarkable job … are quite often in the inner city themselves and run by people who live there. Some of the most-effective and the most-potent agents of change are the people who are leading small grassroots organizations like those that Bob Woodson has been championing, like those that I have worked with for now a number of years, as well. And they’re having remarkable success.

Barbara Elliott today:

After the 2005 Symposium, I spent a season of my life as a practitioner, taking the things I learned from studying more than a thousand nonprofits to start one myself in Houston. I launched the WorkFaith Connection to help people transition from homelessness, joblessness, addiction, or prison into a new job and a new life. I am now teaching students in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University, who are often the first in their family to attend a university. The two populations served have several things in common.

There is a Great Divide between the children of families with two parents who are married, regardless of ethnicity, and children who are raised by single mothers trying to cobble together child care and transportation on a budget that is never enough, in a week that never has enough hours. There is a Great Divide between people who have never known anyone who went to prison or dealt drugs and those for whom the revolving door of that life is the norm.

Some years ago, on a sweltering summer day, I took a wealthy man from a prominent family on what I called a Magical Mystery Tour. We went to one of Houston’s poorest, bullet-pocked neighborhoods to visit a faith-based nonprofit led by a woman who for 30 years has been scooping kids off the streets to get them to stop shooting each other. I took him to meet a former drug addict running an outreach to other addicts, teaching them Scripture and the value of hard work. I took him to a homeless shelter with an open door for men off the streets, if they will abide by the rules of no drinking, no drugs, and no fighting. It’s a pretty rough crowd.

At the end of this blazing hot day, this man of privilege sat in his air-conditioned Lexus outside the homeless shelter, his eyes welling up, and said, “Thank you for showing me a side of Houston I had never seen.” He never would have seen it—nor would I have—unless I had spent a decade seeking out people on the other side of the Great Divide.

My concern for philanthropists now is the same concern I have for board members of nonprofits from the other side of the Great Divide. They can cripple nonprofits—especially faith-based nonprofits—by insisting they be run exactly like a business. If philanthropists and board members are ignorant of the Great Divide separating their world from that of the people the nonprofit serves, they can make hubristic decisions that ruin an organization. “Taking it to scale” is not always the right strategy. In a relational ministry or in a classroom, smaller is often better.

Peter Drucker got it exactly right when he said that the bottom line for nonprofits is changed human lives. Philanthropists need to look here for the indicators of success—some of which may not fit a neat pattern of metrics. And they need a spirit of humility to see the spirit of God at work.