Excellent news from The Chronicle of Philanthropy: it’s hiring a senior editor for its opinion section. Here is some unsought and possibly unwelcome advice for the hiring committee.

First, though, it must be noted that Stacy Palmer, overall Chronicle editor, has done a superb job of managing the opinion section, even though it’s been just one small piece of her overflowing portfolio. As a somewhat-irregular regular contributor to the Chronicle for a while some years ago, I always found her to be receptive to and welcoming of the full range of opinions about the nonprofit sector, ranging from my own curmudgeonly conservative-populist point of view, all the way over to Pablo Eisenberg’s curmudgeonly ultra-progressive point of view.   

That cannot be easy for the journal of record in a world of organizations that are largely drawn from a narrow slice of the ideological spectrum and deeply allergic to criticism. After the Chronicle published an op-ed of mine in 2008 suggesting that liberal philanthropy may have a “Jeremiah Wright problem,” Palmer must have been busier than an air-traffic controller at O’Hare trying to find space for all the outraged demanding immediate responses in print. But to her credit, and in a world where this is increasingly rare, she has always been a scrupulously fair-minded, rigorous editor, with an unquestioned devotion to holding foundations and nonprofits to the highest standards of conduct. (Note to Stacy: I’ll be sending along an op-ed for consideration shortly.)

That said, Palmer has a major publication to run, and a paying readership composed largely of intel-seeking development officers. Hence the prevalence of lists of leading contributors, stories about major gifts, and “how-to” pieces suggesting, say, eight new ways to harness social media to keep your donors happy. 

So it’s to the Chronicle’s credit that it’s pushing beyond the profit-making segment of its business, to try to stimulate a larger and probably literally “unprofitable” discussion about the place of philanthropy in the world, at a time when that place is vigorously contested. In recent years, the Chronicle has devoted more space to the world of foundations, under the skilled editorial guidance of Alex Daniels, along with Maria Di Mento and Dan Parks. Research over the past year—supported by several major foundations—led the Chronicle to believe that the time is right for an editor specifically assigned, as the ad put it, “to greatly expand the number of opinion articles we publish and drive important conversations about the key issues in the nonprofit world.” (Possible question for the new editor: how do you feel about split infinitives?)

The most encouraging language from the recruiting ad, though, is this: 

Applicants should have 10 years of professional experience in writing and editing. We’re especially seeking applicants with demonstrated proficiency as a commissioning editor, ideally at a publication that focuses on big ideas, professional issues, or specific parts of the nonprofit world like education or health. But what we’re most interested in is your ability to spot smart points of view and help opinion contributors present their thinking in compelling ways.

In other words, the new opinion editor will be expected to understand that, beneath all the immediate, practical questions the Chronicle ably addresses, there are indeed “big ideas” and “professional issues” under consideration for the sector as a whole. This has never been truer than today, with a recent series of book-length critiques raising questions about the very legitimacy of philanthropy as a democratic institution. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s sister publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education, does an admirable job of publishing longer think pieces about the state of higher learning under the title The Chronicle Review. Eisenberg and I (for all our differences of opinion) agreed that this would be an excellent model for philanthropy, and even took it up with the relevant authorities a decade or so ago. Now, at last, we may see the fulfillment of that recommendation.

If the editorial candidate has enough years of experience in the field, then he or she will have already become aware of the fundamental problem of reporting on American philanthropy: almost all of the coverage (at least until the past couple of years) is relentlessly upbeat, hopelessly superficial, and confined strictly to the most convenient facts helpfully supplied by foundation press releases. 

Foundations tenaciously seek attention for their own new initiatives. They flood the trade press with notices detailing the innovative, cutting-edge character of their new program, the generous sum to be devoted to it, and a list of the expansive goals and expected outcomes, which will amount to nothing less than “changing the world.” The glowing press releases will be studded with enthusiastic endorsements from hopeful grant recipients and supportive CEOs from other foundations. 

The debut of the new undertaking, however, is typically followed by radio silence. If the first year of program performance matches expectations, then there may be another exuberant press release. But the fact that there are so few of these—and almost no 10-years-of-sustained-progress announcements—leads one to suspect that most grand foundation initiatives, most of the time, fall far short of initial expectations. The now-disappointing bold new initiative may be sustained for a few face-saving years, or it may linger until quietly euthanized by the next foundation CEO after his or her year-long strategic review. But the one thing that seldom happens is any sort of coverage of disappointing results and dashed hopes from the trade press, to say nothing of the larger world of journalism.

The Chronicle is certainly aware of that shortcoming within the sector, and has made substantial efforts recently to run longer, deeply researched, more-objective (and less-adulatory) pieces on foundation initiatives, with particularly valuable contributions from Jim Rendon and Marc Gunther.

But in spite of Palmer’s best efforts, the world of philanthropy op-eds is still largely populated by grand, boisterous program roll-outs, followed by very few thoughtful autopsies. That’s a deficiency that the new editor can help remedy, and will be a breakthrough addition to the Chronicle’s foundation coverage.

Surveying schools of thought about philanthropy

I would make this recommendation to help the new opinion editor meet the mandate to “spot smart points of view and help opinion contributors present their thinking in compelling ways.” It will be essential for him or her to possess a thoroughly developed, if only implicit, intellectual framework for understanding the full range of thoughtful opinions to be systematically sought out over time. This will enable the editor to push through the barrage of thinly veiled foundation press releases clogging his or her inbox, to seek out critiques that might otherwise never be heard.

When I was at the American Enterprise Institute many years ago, I co-edited with Robert Goldwin a series of collections of essays on the American Constitution. As we began our search for contributors, the first thing we did was to scan the literature on the question to be discussed—for instance, how democratic is the Constitution?—and prepare a substantial memo laying out the various schools of thought on the topic. We would then approach representative authors from each of the schools to contribute essays, being sure to include views from the political left, right, and center.

Perhaps I can best illustrate this point by offering a very brief, whimsical sketch of four of the major schools of thought about philanthropy today, starting from the point farthest to the ideological left. Back in the day, this framework helped the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal to select intellectually diverse panels for its monthly discussions. I would hope that the new editor will regularly seek contributions from each of these schools:

  1. The Revolution Will Not be Funded: This school of thought, wonderfully captured in a collection of essays with that name, believes that the “nonprofit industrial complex” is an instrument of capitalist exploitation and so, of course, cannot be counted on to back the revolutionary changes needed to bring about social justice. Although a relatively obscure approach, the revolutionaries scored a major victory this past Summer when they forced wealthy donor Warren Kanders off the board of directors at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art. That sparked a major national discussion about the need for nonprofits to reject support from donors whose wealth comes from disfavored sources. At their most outspoken, both Anand Giridhiradas and Edgar Villanueva reflect elements of this school, when they suggest that philanthropic resources should simply be turned over to oppressed peoples to pursue sweeping changes in the face of deep-seated structural racism.

  2. The Evolution Will Be Funded: This is by far the largest school of thought among philanthropists and holds that our journey to social justice is well underway, benefitting enormously from strategically directed giving. This evolutionary approach is fundamentally technocratic, elite-driven, and oriented to measurable outcomes, tackling social problems within narrow policy silos by breaking them into manageable pieces, each with its assigned cadre of typically science-based professionals. This has been the dominant approach by our largest philanthropies from the earliest days of the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations. Rob Reich’s recent critique of philanthropy as questionably democratic flirts with the first school of thought, but finally comes down within this second school by virtue of his argument that technocratic social experimentation provides democratic legitimacy for foundations. By the way, this school generates by far the largest share of potential op-eds in the leading philanthropy publications, and it will swamp the new editor if he or she is not careful.

  3. The Funding Shall Not Be Evolved: I may have pushed the whimsy a bit too far here, but this seems to be a good label for what we otherwise consider mainstream-conservative philanthropy. Its signature argument is that donor intent must be respected at all costs, not “evolved” by left-leaning staff. The implicit expectation is that donors will enunciate foundation purposes typically friendly to the capitalist system that generated the wealth in the first place. In the face of systemic critiques of philanthropy in recent years, this school of thought has chosen to defend the sector as a whole, arguing that, by carrying out faithfully the initial wishes of donors—whatever they may be—we will have a vibrant, diverse, innovative civic sector. It has consequently downplayed criticism of progressive foundations in particular, convinced that this might bring the entire sector into disrepute.
  1. The Funding Should be Devolved: This is the minuscule populist-conservative school of thought. It believes that philanthropy has gone too far in pursuing grand schemes of social transformation, based as they are on utopian views of human malleability. It calls for a devolution to, or at least a new appreciation of, the original understanding of philanthropy as charity. That is, philanthropy must be humbly aware of its limitations, and should take its bearing from the immediate, concrete care for the person immediately in front of one, within the context of local community. It’s distinguished from mainstream-conservative philanthropy by a wariness of capitalism’s effects on local communities, and a willingness to challenge wealthy conservative donors when they too fall prey to the sort of hubris that infects progressive donors. Although scarce among scholars and commentators, this school of thought has a vigorous representation among smaller foundations, lawmakers, and the general public. And this mode of thought lies behind our own efforts at The Giving Review, as our readers will recognize—though we tend to agree strongly with the No. 3 school’s respect for donor intent and devotion to a strong and independent civil society.

In all candor, I would speculate that the new opinion editor will be drawn from the borderlands between schools No. 1 and No. 2. He or she will have come up through the ranks of a No. 2-school organization in, say, education or health, but will also feel the strong tug of the first school. Like many other “emerging practitioners,” he or she will be interested in mobilizing philanthropy’s political clout to promote broader, systemic changes in American society, quietly pursuing peaceful but revolutionary ends through evolutionary means. The Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker captures nicely the view from the borderlands.

That said, whatever the personal views of the new editor, he or she must be able to identify, and to treat with respect and good will, the most-thoughtful and -reasonable voices across the full spectrum of points of view. In a dramatically polarized political climate, it may be difficult to believe that voices on the other side of the ideological spectrum can be reasonable. But Palmer has established a high standard for this kind of editorial openness and generosity of spirit, and she should seek nothing less in the Chronicle’s new hire.

Opportunities in dissatisfaction outside the establishment

One final note. Given that most of the commentary in philanthropy is generated from predominant schools No. 2 and No. 3, why should an editor even bother seeking opinions from outlying schools No. 1 and No. 4? Philanthropy historian Benjamin Soskis suggests one reason. He pointed out last week on Twitter that “[o]ne thing becomes clear from studying the 1969 Tax Reform Act … is that in surges of philanthropic reform, you often get an entanglement of the reactionary & progressive.” Leaving aside the argumentative labelling of populist conservatism, I think this observation is right on target. As long as the discussion of philanthropy is conducted within the confines of centrist liberalism and conservatism—that is, from schools No.  2 and No. 3—editorial opinion will reflect a fundamental satisfaction with the philanthropic status quo.  

Yet today, there are significant currents of populist dissatisfaction on both the left and the right with our major institutions, including philanthropy. Recent scholarship has given ample voice to the expression of that discontent from the left. But in certain crucial respects—particularly in reservations about the untrammeled workings of the marketplace and an unwillingness to accept whatever wealthy donors wish to pursue by way of social experimentation—the critique from the left finds echoes on the populist right as well. That creates the opportunity for the sort of cross-ideological “entanglement” that Soskis discovers in past waves of “philanthropic reform.” What that reform will look like—when it might occur and how extensive it might be—will all come as a complete surprise to a sector languidly perusing an editorial page composed entirely of opinions drawn from establishment liberalism and conservatism. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s new senior editor for opinion can help ensure this doesn’t happen.