A webinar earlier this week, “Philanthropy: Its Promise and Perils as a Community-Building Institution,” is well worth the time of anyone who wants to hear a thoughtful discussion on the current state of philanthropy. Sponsored by the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, the session’s four panelists are sharp in their criticism of big philanthropy, and especially its politicization during the past two decades. 

The panel members are Jeremy Beer of American Philanthropic, Alicia Manning of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute, and William Schambra of the Hudson Institute and The Giving Review. The event is well-moderated by Pepperdine School of Public Policy dean Pete Peterson.

Much of the discussion centers on why a focus on local needs and local leaders is essential for good philanthropy. All four of the speakers make compelling cases for why community expertise and judgment are generally superior to the technocratic prescriptions of foundation experts. However, they are pessimistic that big philanthropy accepts this idea, particularly at a time when all problems are being reduced to “systemic racism” and a few other simplistic tropes.  

The most-provocative exchange is between Beer and Schambra near the end of the session. In response to a question about what could be done to get philanthropy out of politics, Beer suggests that it may be impossible to draw a clear line—and as a result, drastic action, like ending the charitable status of many organizations, may be justified.

The ever-reasonable and optimistic Bill Schambra pushes back against radical reactions, but argues that it might be time to revitalize the “Cleveland standard,” the set of regulations governing foundation funding of election-related activities that arise from the 1969 Tax Reform Act. He makes a compelling argument that, through Congressional hearings and thoughtful scholarship, it may be possible to create a clear boundary between the charitable and the political.

The seventh installment in The Quest for Community series from the Pepperdine School of Public Policy’s American Project, the webinar is well worth the hour and 11 minutes for those interested in, and concerned about, philanthropy and its future.