That ominous rumble you heard on Monday, August 10, was a major fissure suddenly appearing deep in the theoretical foundations of modern philanthropy.
The day started normally enough. In the morning, GrantCraft by Candid—the organization formed in 2019 through the merger of the Foundation Center and GuideStar—tweeted out its contribution to #MotivationalMonday. It was a familiar quote from John D. Rockefeller, Sr.: “The best philanthropy is constantly in search of finalities—a search for a cause; an attempt to cure evils at their source.”
Nothing could have seemed less offensive. This quote is at the heart of modern philanthropy, by which it proudly distinguishes itself from charity, its quaint, primitive ancestor. As everyone in the field has heard again and again, charity merely puts Band-aids on problems, whereas philanthropy gets at their root causes and solves them once and for all. Even Wikipedia knows this: “Philanthropy is different from charity …. Charity aims to relieve the pain of a particular social problem, whereas philanthropy attempts to address the root cause of the problem.”
So for Candid—a thoroughly mainstream philanthropic service organization designed “to connect nonprofits, foundations, and individuals to the resources they need to do good, building on 88 years of dedicated experience”—this must have seemed the most uncontroversial of inspirational tweets.
Oh, to be sure, I lodged my customary objection. I responded on Twitter that the “search for finalities” by the first major American foundations early in the 20th Century is precisely the pernicious mindset that led to eugenics. And I noted, once again, that we have yet to secure a public accounting from the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations for their early and generous support for the confinement and sterilization of the genetically “unfit.”
But as usual, my comments pinged harmlessly off the impenetrable armor of philanthropy. I’m easily dismissed as just another cranky conservative, out to embarrass liberal foundations even as they’ve long since moved (albeit unapologetically) beyond their initial enthusiasm for eugenics.
But then, Jara Dean-Coffey weighed in with her own tweets on the “search for finalities” quote. Dean-Coffey is founder of the Luminare Group, a minority, woman-owned firm that provides “strategic planning, evaluation, capacity building and resources for leaders and organizations addressing disparity and structural barriers to equity.” Not easily dismissed as a conservative, in other words. Here is the text of her thread:
Disagree. This quest for control and certainty is one of the most damaging aspects of white dominant culture.
It ignores the complexity and interrelatedness of mindsets, behaviors, actions and systems. It also has led foundations to believe they can ‘fix’ things - usually by themselves.
As for evaluative work, it has created a norm where the purpose, in philanthropy, is to proovecausation with little attention to understanding context, ignoring history and differential affect.
This statement is not surprising given the source and not what we need in the third decade of the 21stcentury. A little more humility please.
With a few exceptions, I agree wholeheartedly with Dean-Coffey’s response. Whether attributable to “white dominant culture,” as she has it, or to American progressivism’s embrace of top-down technocratic control, as I would prefer, our critiques of root-cause philanthropy are very similar.
We both believe that, when it comes to addressing public problems, professionally credentialed foundation experts hubristically claim to know better than the communities actually suffering the problems what the remedy is. Foundations are indeed besotted with the technologies of “control and certainty” that seemingly enable them to “prove causation,” cutting through “complexity and interrelatedness” to get to the root cause of problems, where they can “fix things – usually by themselves.” Such is the essence of “strategic philanthropy”—the school of thought that has governed Big Philanthropy for several decades now.
Although we have different ideas about what should take that approach’s place, I think Dean-Coffey and I would agree about this much: the communities that have traditionally been treated as passive objects of philanthropic manipulation must now become the active agents of their own destinies, solving problems for themselves according to their own cultural and moral commitments. For foundations, this would mean, as Dean-Coffey concludes—and as we’ve said more than once on The Giving Review—“a little more humility please.”
At any rate, unlike my own typically futile efforts, Dean-Coffey apparently penetrated the armor of strategic philanthropy. After her insightful tweets, the Rockefeller quote suddenly disappeared from the GrantCraft page, which then featured this tweet:
Well, I had some Qs, so I reached out. When I didn’t receive the promised response from GrantCraft info, I tried the main media contact for Candid, also without success. So I’ll give it one more try, publicly, here on The Giving Review.
I’ll limit myself to one rather substantial Q: have we in fact reached the point where the central premise of strategic philanthropy—that it must “search for finalities”—is so controversial that it can’t be cited by a mainstream foundation-service organization without immediate retraction, accompanied by an apology?
Don’t get me wrong. I welcome this development, no matter who or what brought about the fatal fissure. But I really would have liked to hear more from Candid about why it so suddenly shrank in horror from one of the central premises of mainstream philanthropy. Surreptitiously deep-sixing the quote that is engraved over the entryways of most large American foundations does little to promote the “healthy conversation” Candid claims to welcome.
Historian Ben Soskis took note of this development, as well. He tweeted, “This is quite a notable revocation since that quote—for all the legitimate critiques directed to it—does in fact sit at the center of American philanthropy.” He generously offered to host the missing conversation on HistPhil, the website he co-founded with Maribel Morey.
By the way, I think I can guess what Candid’s answer might be, were it to live up to its name. As the nonprofit sector has shifted dramatically leftward over the past year, it has become starkly clear—as Vu Le, Ruth McCambridge, and other critics have long noted—that strategic philanthropy is an approach designed to empower a handful of lavishly compensated (yes, typically white and male) foundation professionals to eke out paltry, oppressively monitored grants to a handful of fiercely competing nonprofits. They, in turn, are often managed on a shoestring budget by poorly compensated people of color, who know far more about their own communities than any outside expert ever could.
For that to change, social-justice philanthropy must displace strategic philanthropy as the dominant mindset governing grantmaking. That is precisely what seems to be happening. It’s the major theoretical development explaining philanthropy’s recent redirection of billions of unrestricted dollars toward groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
I just hope, in the process, that all the attention and resources won’t go now to large-scale political activism. The fall of strategic philanthropy should also open up room for more attention to the smaller grassroots groups carrying so much of the burden of everyday human provision in our hardest-hit neighborhoods. That’s a cause that we much-despised champions of charity could get behind.