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Reclaiming the Moral Life of Philanthropy

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

This column is adapted from Gara LaMarche’s address with this title given recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Atlantic Currents logoIn 1965, Bill Moyers, then a young White House aide, talked with President Lyndon Johnson about a pending bill to provide retroactive Social Security payments.  According to the White House tapes, Moyers argued for the retroactivity clause on the basis that it would boost the economy.  Lyndon Johnson was convinced because it was the right thing to do, simple as that.  “By God,” LBJ thundered, “you can’t treat Grandma this way.  She’s entitled to it and we promised it to her.”

As I read this exchange recently, I felt a longing for increased moral clarity in our public discourse, to transcend the relentlessness of metrics and the calculus of polls and focus groups.

I have had a growing disquiet about the way foundations, along with the organisations we support, mirror political trends and stray too far from first principles when talking about what and why they do anything.  We have become more about the fix than about the reasons for doing or caring about it, and we risk straying too far from what is right.  I think it is time to strike a better balance.

Rigour and moral clarity don’t need to be in tension.  Indeed, the first often serves the second.  From the political right, we’ve seen quite a few morally or even religiously-driven initiatives, like abstinence-only education, that thrive despite their failure and their advocates’ disregard for facts.  I don’t propose that progressives who are concerned about social justice, equity and human rights abandon their evaluative approach or ape the right’s tendencies, but I think we have something to learn from them.

I learned this lesson working on crime and punishment issues at the Texas Civil Liberties Union in 1984.  Texas had lifted a moratorium on executions and the legislature reacted to appalling crimes by lengthening sentences and extending the death penalty to additional offences.  Human rights advocates had little success talking about the Constitution and first principles.

So I shifted our argument to pragmatic terms: it wasn’t cost-effective to lock up so many people and it was counter-productive to strip prisons of educational and training programmes since inmates would get out without skills to earn an honest living.  They’d be forced back into crime.  This sound argument wasn’t enough to make lasting change in Texas.  Today, the Department of Corrections houses four times as many prisoners as in the 1980s.  Our pragmatic arguments lost sight of first principles and failed to build a reform constituency based on those principles.

In March 2010, we celebrated the passage of U.S. health care reform.  Atlantic was the largest funder of Health Care for America Now, a national coalition that worked for two years to achieve comprehensive health care reform.  While the law is not perfect, it is the most significant advance for the social safety net in America in over 40 years.

The President deserves enormous credit for sticking with this battle despite counsels of caution.  But he erred, with a few exceptions, by framing the health care campaign largely around cost, not morality and justice.

Pragmatic arguments for reform – the unsustainable cost of health expenses and insurance rates, the burden on taxpayers and business – are all important to those skeptical of government’s reach.  But, the town hall meeting protesters who became the Tea Party have ferocious passion. Despite the passage of the bill, the Tea Party protest dominates discussion of it in the aftermath because our side lacked a sustained appeal to morality, and failed to state repeatedly the injustice of consigning millions of working Americans to illness and early death because they lack money.

With U.S. immigration reform, another key Atlantic issue, there is also a mismatch between the scope of injustice and the principal arguments meant to spur action.  Millions of people, driven by desperation to remain in the U.S., live in the shadows; they are stateless workers without whom big sectors of the economy would collapse, but who have no political rights or voice.  Homes and factories are raided, children and families deported, discrimination and police abuse virtually invited by laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.  This crisis should shock the conscience of every person.

Yet despite these appalling realities, “fixing a broken system” remains the principle frame of the immigration discussion.  Technocracy is no match for the virulent passion of the other side, who, like the Tea Party, are propelled both by economic anxiety and racially-tinged discomfort with an increasingly diverse country.

Foundations have a big role in framing issues and campaigns.  To start, most mission statements and grantmaking focus on “solving problems” or “addressing issues,” and the ones comfortable supporting public policy advocacy tend to avoid discussing it or making any effort to knit their disparate issues into a larger frame.

Many foundations are increasingly influenced by public opinion research, which has a strong place in any social change effort.  But if the research is not closely hinged to first principles, to fundamental values, it cannot be a tool for meaningful change.

Pollsters have told me that the best way to get public and legislative approval of progressive measures on immigration or prisoner re-entry is to cast it in punitive terms – requiring undocumented immigrants to become citizens or forcing prisoners to get a high school equivalency diploma – can tilt toward a majority in favour of reform.  This approach accepts pernicious stereotypes and the perpetuation of demonising myths that will come back to haunt us and cause more human misery.

One of our grantees in the human rights field recently conducted polling that supports grounding policies and arguments in a deeper moral framework.  Regarding torture, they found, participants were not persuaded by utilitarian arguments, but by the ones at the core of their identity as Americans:  this is not who we are.

Foundations have also eroded their moral authority by an excessive focus on self-interest.  In 1976, Paul Ylvisaker wrote: “Philanthropy [must] move out of fixed and safe positions into more independent, flexible and far more exposed stances between the contradictory forces that are generating tension, and without the resolving action of some agent such as philanthropy, will otherwise tear nations and neighborhoods apart.”

And yet foundations today too often are entrenched in those fixed and safe positions.  If they speak out, it is more likely to be about the preservation of tax exemptions and payout rates, remaining bystanders in larger policy debates with profound impact on the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups they purport to serve.  During the Bush years, it was hard to find a voice in American philanthropy raised in protest of tax cuts or the wars.

In recent years, a number of foundations have formed what might be called an “effectiveness movement” in philanthropy, with the idea that good intentions are not enough.  Atlantic has helped to create organisations like Bridgespan and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to aid nonprofits and grantmakers in setting smarter benchmarks and assessing impact.  But the effectiveness movement is now finding that there is no real constituency for effectiveness, as such.  Watching the recent travails of the Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund, it is possible to see why:  values move people to enthusiasm and action, not more sterile concepts of metrics and results.

By all means, subject reforms to analysis, testing and evaluation.  But it all must flow from beliefs, taking note of the roles of class and race, the power dynamics between adults and children, parents and schools, communities and political actors.  Is participation an important value in schools?  Do we value creative thinking, dissent and experimentation?  If these questions aren’t explicit and the answers don’t inform school reform proposals, how can we possibly know whether we are on a path to building a better world?

The 1960s were the last great period of progressive social advance in the United States.  From Nixon on, all Presidents have played on the same field, set by the political right. Republicans get to speak in grand moral terms about freedom, and Democrats become problem-solvers, subjected to ferocious criticisms questioning their patriotism, morality, and commitment to security abroad and at home.

The United States is in a toxic political moment.  For progressives, who thought only months ago that the arc of the last 40 years in American politics might finally be bending, it is beginning to seem clear that we have failed again at communicating a coherent and compelling world view.  We have policies, programmes, bills and many accomplishments that make life better for many people.  But we are in danger of losing the gains we have made because the story has no moral.

We need to reinvigorate our moral discourse.  If we want to be successful in bringing about lasting social change, we must keep our focus on what we want to change, and why.  In the words of Henry David Thoreau:  “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.

Read the full text of the speech 

Watch the video of the speech and Q&A


Gara LaMarche

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