Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Big Problems, Small Changes

"[A]fter a century of trying one approach after another, it would be difficult to identify a single significant social problem to the roots of which philanthropy has penetrated, thereby finally resolving it."

William A. Schambra, "Philanthropy's Misguided Focus on'Root Causes,' The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 28, 2007

Schambra's solution is for foundations "to take a closer look at the thousands of charities that have come up with solid, modest approaches to smaller, more limited aspects of problems." Good idea.

It's no surprise that a focus on "root causes" (aka radical solutions) is a source of philanthropic evil for Schambra and the motivating force of "progressive" philanthropy. Putting that aside, Schambra is really going after the "hubris" of foundations that think they can solve big problems, leverage social transformation, and remake communities. I've talked about hubris in several other postings, Hubris, Hubris and in Philanthropy's Crucible.

At the same time, Schambra recognizes that "variety and experimentation" may be philanthropic virtues. The problem in practice is how to reconcile useful experimentation with "sold, modest approaches." That's the rub.

Take an example, let's say the divergence of US growing productivity and compensation levels for workers since the 1970s. Is it a problem? Should philanthropy care? If so, what are the appropriate philanthropic roles --awareness-building, public will, articulating policy options like increases in minimum wage or EITC, or incentives for post-secondary achievement. These are modest, sensible approaches, hardly the histrionic stuff of "root causes." Or should philanthopy support a few more social enterprises and focus on modest changes like...?

1 comment:

Colin Austin said...

In the epilogue to State of the South 2007, Ambassador James A. Joseph writes "Philanthropy often has been most effective when it has dared to go beyond charity, when it has been for the American society what the research and development budget has been to a business corporation - the seed money for experimentation and innovation." This perspective does not preclude incrementalism, but suggests that philanthropy should be more open to risks and failure.