For the Summer 2019 issue of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Philanthropy magazine, Daniel P. Smith compiled short commentaries about philanthropy as an emerging field in higher education—in the form of classes, majors and minors, and some graduate-degree programs. Below is one contribution to the collection.


Alexis de Tocqueville thought civil society was so important because that is where people learn citizenship. If that meant some sloppy, amateurish affairs, so be it. To approach philanthropy and charities only as service-delivery vehicles—putting a premium on efficiency, management expertise, and business techniques—is to lose this vital aspect of philanthropy, the giving process as part of democracy in action.

Ask any donor what he wants to see, and he’ll tell you a well-run, efficient organization. But at the same time, he’ll complain about the disappearance of mass participation in civil society. That’s a real problem. 

If we insist on some formal training as a prerequisite for becoming a leader in voluntary activity, average Americans will be squeezed out. There are places in life where professionalization and efficiency aren’t really what is needed most. Think of the Cajun Navy and the community outpourings that are often much more effective than official efforts when there are disasters. 

When foundations get behind a national model and insist that it be replicated in a scientifically analyzed and structured way, that can end up driving out or distorting local innovations. That tells volunteers and donors and workers that they need to go to these brand names. This creates a narrow self-reinforcing cycle and snuffs out fresh problem-solving approaches customized for particular places and circumstances.

If you look at the requirements that foundations are imposing on grantees today, they’re making them plan, and hire, and focus almost entirely on efficiency and managerial expertise. Are management training and statistical measurement really the keys to solving our deepest social problems? Will those things teach people how to be good neighbors?