8 min read

A sermon that bears repeating.

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 his original comments in ’05, below are the comments of Robert L. Woodson, Sr. At the time, Woodson was president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He’s still president of the organization, now called The Woodson Center.

Woodson (Wikimedia Commons)

Edited excerpts from Robert L. Woodson, Sr., at “Vision and Philanthropy” symposium, February 2005:

Just a brief comment and then a question, if I may. I sort of came to conservatism by way of being what Irving Kristol once described as a radical liberal who was mugged by reality. As a social civil-rights activist, I realized that a lot of people who suffered and sacrificed did not benefit from the change, that their problems were not racial as such but required some other remedies. And so that’s where I’m coming to this.

But the question that I have for the panel is, let’s suppose that the nation totally embraced the conservative vision. How would it affect, in practical ways, the plight of the least of God’s children? If you could have your way and you walked out of here and everyone signed on to all of what you say we should be, tell me how that would affect the conditions of the least of God’s children.


[I]t’s not enough, Grover [Norquist], to say that somehow we have reached a millennium when everybody has all the money they want and the freedom to do with it what they choose. This is an emphasis on secular comforts and somehow secular well-being. Well, if that were sufficient you wouldn’t have the sons and daughters of very rich, wealthy white people taking their lives through drugs and alcohol. I can name Gloria Vanderbilt, Paul Newman—you could just list and list them, if that were sufficient.

Obviously there’s something else missing in their lives that drives them to those extremes. And when you add to that the social and economic circumstances faced by poor people, it exacerbates the same tensions that exist among the non-poor. So therefore, as James Q. Wilson pointed out, when you manipulate all the variables that are supposed to yield social outcomes and the situation doesn’t change, then that something that is missing is culture and values.

And so the challenge, it seems to me, for conservatives is to engage in a kind of self-examination. I find that in the conservative movement, as Barbara [Elliott] is saying, you’re too content on winning the academic argument and too little concerned about whether or not your vision or your philosophy produces better people. And the test of whether it produces better people is that the laboratory is among the least of God’s children. It’s not enough to talk about what you’re against; you’ve got to talk about what you’re for. It’s not enough to have expectations. Expectations in the absence of opportunity is oppression.

Now, how that opportunity is conveyed, it can be conveyed by conservative means. It doesn’t mean the government rushes in and gives people a hand, but in order for people to participate in an economy, they require information, they require training, and conservatives seem to be less enthusiastic about coming close to poor people.


[T]he difference between Barbara’s approach and Steve [Moore]’s is, Steve’s gets funded. [Laughter.] And too many conservatives look upon what Barbara does and what we do with sort of quaint condescension—it’s kind of nice, but let’s get back to the real important work—that conservatives are just more comfortable with ideas and funding ideas, and people who talk about ideas. And I would like to just recommend some very specific things that funders can do.

First of all, I’m just reminded—as a preamble to that—of the joke about the man who was drowning 30 feet from shore and a liberal comes along and determines that he is 30 feet from shore and he says, well, I have got 60 feet of rope so let me just throw it all out to him. A conservatives come along and says, oh, he’s 30 feet from shore, let me give him 15 feet and let him swim the rest of the way. A neoconservative comes along, sees a man drowning, and goes home and writes a column about it. [Laughter.]

And so therefore, let me just say that I really think the way the liberals prevail with regard to poor people is because they show up. What they do is often injurious to the poor, but they do show up. They appear to be doing something. Conservatives are absent. Let me just give some very specific things.

First of all, back in ’83—I must commend the Heritage Foundation. When I first arrived in D.C., I was amazed that Heritage would tolerate a column on the Mandate for Leadership that was set against Reagan—in that I said that they were just praising the fact that what conservatives do is cut budgets and not reform those institutions and I called them low-budget liberals. We have got to get away from low-budget liberalism.

The second thing conservatives have to do is on issues of race policies. I said then as I say now, you always hear conservatives when there is a disgruntled white fireman, but never when there is a legitimate racial grievance by somebody who had been discriminated against. And so that would be important in terms of the image.

The other thing that conservatives need to do is take serious what Barbara was saying and begin to fund efforts that consist of people armed with experience. People armed with experience, I believe, will always prevail against those armed only with an argument. And therefore it’s important to fund those individuals that embody the principles that you stand for. And one of the ways you can undermine the left is to demonstrate to people that liberals do not speak for them, by coming in and supporting faith-based efforts that are reducing drug and alcohol, and crime, and what not—come in and demonstrate.

Also I think there should be some incentives for conservative magazines and scholarly works to go out and do research with faith-based groups, to examine whether or not they are more effective than secular approaches or more effective than liberal approaches, and highlight these in their publications. And I think also scholars could really come and reference some of these individuals when you are trying to draw examples. Go in and reference—it would do a lot to validate these groups.

And also finally someone like Clint Bolick who was at [the Institute for Justice]—when he goes in and his group supports the person who wants the right to run a jitney service free of government regulation, or to have a hair braiding business, to operate a barber—these are small enterprises that embody fundamental conservative principles, but they happen to be acted upon by grassroots people who do not define themselves ideologically. Many of them define themselves the way I do. On my religion, I’m a cardiac Christian and in my ideology and in politics, I’m a radical pragmatist.

Most Americans are radical pragmatists. They will be drawn to your beliefs and your principles to the extent that you support the embodiment of those principles in your actions. And so therefore, I think funders should do more to invest in the kind of grassroots efforts that embody the principles that you say you stand for and then let the people speak for themselves.

One final point is just to say that Ralph Nader understands the relationship between symbol and facts. If Ralph Nader wants you to regulate the automobile, he doesn’t stand up with five white guys in blue suits with charts from Harvard. Ralph Nader brings a bloodstained, wrinkled fender of a Pinto, puts it on the hearing table, and he has the weeping parents of a teenager who was killed in a car, and he says, This is why we need to regulate the cars. Now, contrast that with people on the other side who are standing there in business suits saying, this is the data based upon our Harvard study. Who is going to win that argument?

Robert L. Woodson, Sr., today:

I have written repeatedly exposing the damage and danger of the Left’s decades-old strategy of portraying Black Americans as helpless victims of racism and the legacy of America’s indelible original sin of slavery, and the 1619 Project, supported and propagated by The New York Times, is the latest iteration of this assault. But when I couple my comments with a criticism of the Right’s failure to respond with an effective agenda to address poverty, I am often met with complaints that I just keep saying the same things. That response reminds me of the members of one congregation who complained that their pastor had preached 10 sermons in a row on adultery. When the elders asked him when he was going to stop and move to other topics, he replied, “When you all stop doing it, I will stop talking about it.”

The Right fails to recognize and build on the fact that the strategic interests of conservatives and the poor and dispossessed are essentially aligned, while the interests of the Left are in fundamental opposition  to the interests of the poor. The Left has made a commodity of the poor in a poverty industry that includes government bureaucrats whose careers depend on having large cadres of dependents to serve, as well as academicians and “experts” for whom the conditions of the poor are the grievances on which their celebrity status and book sales thrive.

In contrast, conservatives are job-creators whose enterprises thrive as men and women rise from poverty to serve as responsible and trustable employees, and even become entrepreneurs who contribute to the vitality of the economy. Yet, conservatives have easily been cast as greedy curmudgeons because the bulk of their proposals dealing with poverty are concerned only with budget cuts in government programs or more-stringent requirements for their recipients.  

The pronouncements and demands from the Left rely on the findings of their “failure studies,” in which analysts tally the ranks of the homeless, the addicted, and high-school dropouts in low-income communities. But if their studies show that 70% of the residents suffer these afflictions, the flip side is that 30% of households, confronted with the same odds, are somehow able to rise above those conditions. Conservatives should go into those neighborhoods to do capacity studies and identify oases of excellence and community leaders who serve as agents of healing and rejuvenation. Analysts, scholars, and funders on the Right should document models of the resilience, perseverance, and ingenuity that have enabled achievement against the odds. In the process, they will learn that the community and individual uplift that has been accomplished in the face of daunting conditions has been built on a foundation of America’s founding principles and values.

The most-powerful antidote to the poison being perpetrated by the 1619 Project and its ilk is not a counterargument presented  in white papers or televised panels, but testimonies from the men and women who serve as living evidence of the foundational values and virtues that have made possible the rise of generations of all races and ethnicities.

Conservatives are losing the cultural war because they lack a ground game. They should recognize and build on the strategic interests they share with the poor and minorities. The war will not be won from ivory towers of academia and policy analysis. Issuing white papers at conservative conferences and defending them on the Fox network is not a winning strategy. Conservatives should go into those neighborhoods to identify and support their assets and the victories that have been achieved through the founding principles and values. To date, the Right has received this call with indifference.

In 2005, I was able to present these challenges in person through panel discussions and presentations. In 2020, I am limited to presenting these issues in written form since the invitations have been withdrawn. My message remains the same. 

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