Ford Foundation president Darren Walker has just published an online book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. As the title suggests, he draws upon an enduring trope of the American foundation world, namely that charity or generosity—small, direct, face-to-face giving—is hardly adequate to meet the pressing needs of the day. For that, we need philanthropy, or justice, or some much-larger and more-comprehensive approach that will truly get to the heart of our problems. 

“In short, charity might be writing a check for a cause you believe in, or finding ways to help individuals who have been affected by the scourge of inequality,” according to Walker. “But justice goes beyond individuals—it’s investing your money, time, resources, knowledge, and networks to change the root causes that create the need for charity in the first place.”

Walker writes elsewhere in the book that in philanthropy, charity can be a mindset. “In the decades I’ve spent working for nonprofits and foundations,” he laments, “I’ve seen the shortcomings of this charity mindset firsthand.”

From Generosity to Justice also features a number of other philanthropists and activists riffing on the familiar philanthropy/charity distinction. Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, observes that “charity is like a Band-Aid. It’s getting you the resources to address an injury, but not actually getting at the reason for the injuries to begin with.” Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, president of the eponymous foundation, similarly notes that “charity helps people survive. Philanthropy helps people strive. Justice helps people thrive.” Connie Ballmer, co-founder of the Ballmer Group, argues that “justice goes beyond charity, which is equated with donation. Justice goes beyond donations in an effort to create a broader, systemic change.”

On those rare occasions when someone objects that charity is treated rather shabbily by such formulations, the immediate response is typically, “Oh no, of course we don’t mean to dismiss charity. We really need both kinds of giving!” But that’s nonsense. The plain import of the language is that the broader, systemic approach is vastly superior to mere charity, the sole function of which seems to be to provide an example of how not to approach giving.

Observing Dorothy Day’s birthday recently, historian Ben Soskis reminds us that charity had in fact once developed a counter-argument to the Walker formulation. Day “juxtaposed the Catholic Worker commitment to charity, premised on the assumption of voluntary poverty & willingness to be with the poor in the midst of their deprivation, to the ‘telescopic philanthropy’ of some of her progressive peers,” Soskis tweets in a thread. “Their philanthropy was ‘full of concerns for people everywhere’ but tended to overlook the suffering nearer at hand. And it was allied both to bureaucratic, professionalized social service provision as well as to the capitalist, consumerist order.”

(For further development of these themes, see Soskis’ Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed from 2014 and the superb Hudson Institute monograph upon which it’s based, Both More and No More: The Historical Split Between Charity and Philanthropy. He is the exceedingly rare scholar who treats the cause of charity without the contempt it typically generates.)

The KOR’s “social workers”

My Giving Review co-editor Dan Schmidt has been eloquently addressing a related issue—that is, small, bottom-up grantmaking versus massive, top-down giving—on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He argues quite correctly that the former kind of grantmaking may have had more to do with that event than the latter.

I’d like to draw on this commemoration as well, with a longish quote from Jonathan Schell’s introduction to Polish dissident Adam Michnik’s Letters from Prison and Other Essays, published in 1985.

Seeking ways to challenge the Communist government of Poland without inviting the sort of massive suppression that had greeted previous political movements, Schell argues, Michnik was persuaded that small, independent groups of workers operating well beneath the regime’s political radar would help create islands of freedom. And so he was “soon busy organizing and participating in a host of independent groups.”

Schell continues:

One deserves special mention: the Workers’ Defense Committee usually known as KOR—the acronym of its Polish name. KOR did not agitate politically, or otherwise address the government. Instead, it set out to render concrete assistance—financial, legal, and medical—to workers and their families who had suffered in one way or another from government repression. Indeed, the committee explicitly declared its purposes to be not political but social, and it restricted its activity to what Jan Jósef Lipski, one of its founders, who has written an excellent history of the organization, refers to as “social work.” But what in the eyes of KOR might be considered social was considered by the government definitely political, for in a totalitarian system every aspect of collective existence is supposed to originate with the government and be under its management. In this deep reach of totalitarian government into daily life, which is usually seen as a source of its strength, KOR discovered a point of weakness: precisely because totalitarian governments politicize daily life, daily life becomes a vast terrain on which totalitarianism can be opposed. It was here that KOR implicitly pitted itself against the regime. In consequence, the KOR members soon began to suffer the repression against which they sought to defend the workers—loss of employment, arrest, imprisonment, beatings, and, in a few cases, loss of their lives. It was just one of the remarkable qualities of this organization that its members were willing to suffer government reprisal not in the name of some sweeping political program or visionary goal but in order to get some money into the hands of a fatherless family or to arrange for favorable testimony in the trial of a worker. Only great goals might seem to warrant great sacrifices, but the KOR workers were ready to make great sacrifices for modest goals. “In some dissident circles … KOR members were sneered at as “social workers,” Lipski writes, “but within KOR such a designation by one’s colleagues was regarded as an honor.”

Eventually, KOR was disbanded and its activities subsumed within the labor organization Solidarność, which ultimately formed the first free government behind the former Iron Curtain.

While it lasted, though, KOR’s essential activity was … “mere” charity. Indeed, KOR embraced that label proudly and was prepared to suffer for it, even though it didn’t march under the blazing banner of social justice or human rights.

But KOR’s individual giving wasn’t just “putting Band-Aids” on problems. It was, in fact, a highly charged, deeply significant political act. In the face of an ideology insisting that all human needs could, indeed must, be met by government alone, any activities outside that all-compassing framework were necessarily regarded as subversive.

For one individual to respond independently to the immediate, concrete needs of another inevitably suggested that somehow the prevailing political framework had not lived up to its promise. And that in turn might well be more than simply an oversight, but rather indicative of some fundamental flaw.

Even though the charitable deed may have involved nothing more than a modest cash gift, it looked more like the fundamental act of a free and self-governing citizen. And thousands upon thousands of such acts slowly eroded the Soviet empire.

“John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor”

It might seem a stretch to read anything remotely like this degree of political significance into everyday charitable behavior by today’s American citizens. But some, especially on the communitarian left, are still able to appreciate the potential subversiveness of charity.

Urban expert and community organizer John McKnight, for instance, is a particularly sharp critic of the imperial overreach of the American therapeutic state. He argues—including in his The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits in 1995—that social-service professionalism necessarily destroys individual civic agency. Experts “disable” citizens by insisting upon the prerogatives of defining social problems; developing the appropriate solutions to them; judging their success or failure by measurements that they devise; and then explaining all this in a language so abstruse that only professionals can understand it.

McKnight is also a fan of Croatian philosopher Ivan Illich, who goes so far as to suggest that the social technologies are themselves iatrogenic—that is, that they create the problems for which they alone possess the legitimate solutions.

McKnight’s argument is most poignantly captured in an essay entitled “John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor.” He notes that the American landscape was once covered by a rich civil society, within which face-to-face, concrete charity was the currency of everyday life. Upon critical occasions like the death of a loved one, “the bereaved are joined by neighbors and kin. They meet grief together in lamentation, prayer, and song. … Their grief is common property, an anguish from which the community draws strength and which gives it the courage to move ahead.”

But within the new regime of professional services, McKnight laments, the “bereavement counselor” appears, armed “with the new grief technology.” He observes that “the counselor calls the invention a service and assures the folk of its effectiveness and superiority by invoking the name of the great university while displaying a diploma and license.” Before long, the grief counselor displaces the gathering of charitable neighbors, who could once be counted on to provide solace and casseroles in times of suffering. Social-services professionalism plows up and destroys the rich texture of civil society, just as John Deere’s steel plow once laid open and depleted the American prairie.

If KOR’s charitable activities once implied fundamental defects with Communism’s regime of services, so the everyday charitable acts of Americans today inescapably suggest that our own vast network of social services somehow isn’t adequate to the task of meeting human needs. This is evident in times of natural disaster when, for instance, the “charitable” Cajun Navy has already begun plucking people from flooded homes long before the professionals at FEMA have finished filling out the requisite paperwork. Whenever neighbors start showing up again with foil-covered roasts, the adequacy of grief counseling technology and related services is brought into question. Perhaps a hot meal delivered by a caring neighbor carries more love and healing than another session with a therapist aimed at processing grief.  

Reconsidering the discussion of charity

Many thoughtful writers today, from Yuval Levin on the right to David Brooks in the center to Chris Arnade on the left, argue that America’s vast and expensive structure of professional social services has largely failed to alleviate the alienation and civic despair that characterize so many American communities. To meet that problem, they agree, we desperately need a return to the sort of neighborliness and community that once delivered those humble covered dishes. But for that to come about, we’re going to have to upgrade our current low estimate of charity.

Toward that end, it would be extremely useful for the leaders of our largest foundations to reconsider the way they discuss charity. To be sure, this will be difficult. After all, they are now deploying a new set of technologies aimed at bringing about justice, defined precisely by how it is so different from, and better than, mere charity. The new social tools are every bit as imperialistic as McKnight’s grief counseling.

What justice means for Walker and his friends, for instance, isn’t to be found by consulting the everyday common sense of the American people. The language now used by philanthropy to discuss this new and vastly enlarged purpose doesn’t exist in the marketplace. There, justice is likely to carry a great variety of down-to-earth definitions, some of them not at all in accord with what the Ford Foundation has in mind.

This is why new (or rather, retooled) philanthropic technologies must be employed. Professional experts will have to conduct their scholarly investigations, penetrating beneath the naïve, common-sense understandings of everyday citizens. They will drill down to our system’s deeply rooted structural injustices, which they alone can comprehend and remedy. “Invoking the name of great universities,” the experts will propose sweeping reforms. Lavish grants will then flow to activist nonprofits to teach the new language of social justice, to lobby for the reforms, and to persuade the public of their wisdom and necessity.

In other words, however lofty and appealing the new, “definitely-not-charity” philanthropic purpose initially is, in the final analysis, the foundations will have to field technologies that are every bit as remote from and aggressively hostile toward everyday citizenly understanding as are McKnight’s professional social services. Where humble and practical charitable practices still exist, the new technologies will have to slice through them as ruthlessly as did the steel plow the American prairie.

In this world, the practice of charity can be as subversive as it once was behind the Iron Curtain. It “threatens” to carve out islands of independent civic initiative, free from the heavy-handed guidance and arrogant expertise of philanthropic reformers. No wonder the leaders of American foundations spend so much time denigrating charity. And no wonder charity is so central to the recovery of American civic vitality.