Thoughts on philanthropy from The Giving Review’s “Conversations” series in 2020 (Part 1 of 2)

Dec 28, 2020

A year-end collection of interesting and insightful thinking about grantmaking and giving.

Foundations and education reform

“A large foundation with a lot of money and big ambitions frequently winds up partnering with big districts, gets into policy advocacy and research, and has a web of grantees. In that case, it can be hard for program officers or foundation staff to show that they have changed outcomes for real children in two or three or four years. So there’s the same kind of temptation to generate a sense of momentum via PR, media hits, and frenetic activity.

“It’s almost inevitable that the hype is going to outrun any real change. That’s one of the reasons you tend to see these four-, five-, six-year cycles of turnover at these big foundations—where you see significant changes in strategic direction and in the leadership team. It’s partly a by-product of that divergence between the aspiration and the reality.

“On the other hand, a smaller philanthropy which is just trying to fund a couple hundred local scholarships a year or to beautify local schools and hospitals can control outcomes and judge effectiveness much more readily. That makes it a lot easier to get away from the ‘spinning wheels’ problem.”

—       “A conversation with the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess (Part 1 of 2),” January 13, 2020


Converging critiques of grantmaking

“[T]here is this really interesting convergence. If you read HistPhil, you’ll read the standard progressive critiques of conservative philanthropy. That is a big part of the historiography and the scholarship. But one thing you also notice is the two poles meeting in some of the critiques. I have just been really interested in that.

“There’s probably a smaller body of conservatives now who represent that voice, maybe with Bill [Schambra] in the lead, but in terms of a space for people who are willing to think critically about philanthropy, I consider the conservative critique about bureaucracy and technocracy and the importance of local versus national to be fundamental to some of the conversations we’re having.

“I look at something like the Green Revolution that is almost always promoted as the greatest success story of 20th Century philanthropy, but historians, geologists, anthropologists, and sociologists have poked holes in that narrative. They’ve linked the funding of this agricultural revolution and the promotion of monoculture to all sorts of problems—the swelling of cities, the decline of small towns. Taking a chance to look back and discipline the kind of hubris that normally attends to these kind of big, big grants can be really constructive.

“The importance of civil society, the importance of the local, the importance of grassroots participation, and a kind of suspicion of bureaucracy—those things have a real legitimacy in the American tradition. I don’t agree with the policy aims of much of conservative philanthropy. That’s not where I find the value. But if there is a conservative tradition, those notions to me would be meaningful. I could find some value there. I don’t know who the voices these days are who are really fleshing that out to a general audience, to an audience that isn’t just peers and like-minded individuals.”

–       “A conversation with philanthropy historian and journalist Benjamin Soskis (Part 1 of 2),” February 14, 2020, and “A conversation with philanthropy historian and journalist Benjamin Soskis (Part 2 of 2),” February 15, 2020

Benjamin Soskis


Conservative giving in context

“I think philanthropy in the United States, particularly conservative philanthropy, does a pretty good job. Compare it to the way that conservative philanthropy operates outside the United States, to the extent that it even exists. It’s incredibly weak.

“In the United States, it seems to me that conservative philanthropy knows the limits to what can be achieved through politics per se. It’s also good at picking out particular niches.

“[W]e have to understand that—well, you know this better than I do—but my understanding is that conservative philanthropy is a fraction of the overall philanthropy that’s done in the United States, much of which is not particularly political.

“That said, there’s plenty of big liberal, left-wing philanthropy. It’s much bigger than conservative philanthropy in terms of dollars and resources. The left also controls the universities, with a very few exceptions, and the means of cultural production more generally. They control most of the media. When you think about all the resources—both monetary and institutional—that the left has , I think that conservative philanthropy punches way above its weight.”

—       “A conversation with the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg (Part 2 of 2),” March 16, 2020


Charity, activism, and the rain

“[T]here’s a huge increase of what I’ll call the warehousing of money—where you’ve just got money sitting in endowments, like at Harvard. We’re all being reminded of how big Harvard’s endowment is right now. With the endowments, with donor-advised funds, with private foundations, our country always has needs and the world has needs—particularly at a time like this, they really have needs—that they can help meet. I think the Hill’s a little bit more alive to all of this.

“What are we really doing to try getting more of that money into the hands of what I call working charities—charities that are actually helping folks? I think that’s the big question, along with the movement more into advocacy.

“We often hear from private foundations that they’re saving for a rainy day. Okay. Well, it’s raining.

“In the private-foundation area, it seems—not all of them, obviously—but there seems more and more of a view toward, Well, we’re not going to buy the blankets for the Salvation Army, we’re not going to be the ones actually pulling the wagon in terms of helping the poor or what have you. What we’re going to do is instead make the trumpet calls to support advocacy and promotion of a government solution.”

—       “A conversation with tax-policy expert Dean Zerbe (Part 1 of 2),” April 17, 2020


(Part 2 is here.)