In a New York Times op-ed article earlier this month entitled “Who Killed the Knapp Family?,” columnist Nicholas Kristof and business consultant Sheryl WuDunn preview their new book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, which promises to present a deeply depressing picture of the current state of working-class America. Kristof made his name as a journalist covering foreign disasters, so this was dramatically different, and very difficult, for him; the disaster he now covers had transpired in his hometown, Yamhill, Ore. What happened there has been replicated in working-class communities across America, Kristof and WuDunn argued. In a by-now familiar litany, blue-collar jobs disappeared because of automation and global trade; opioids flooded the listless crowds of the unemployed and despairing; and the “war against drugs” imprisoned many of them, making their life prospects even grimmer.

In the face of these devastating trends, Kristof and WuDunn nonetheless highlight a small, local project that has managed to rescue a handful of such individuals. “We attended a thrilling graduation in Tulsa, Okla., for 17 women completing an impressive local drug treatment program called Women in Recovery,” they write. The graduates averaged 15 years of addiction each, and all were on probation.  “Yet they had quit drugs and started jobs, and 300 people in the audience—including police officers who had arrested them and judges who had sentenced them—gave the women a standing ovation.” Women in Recovery has a recidivism rate “after three years of only 4 percent, and consequently had saved Oklahoma $70 million in prison spending, according to the George Kaiser Family Foundation.”

But Kristof and WuDunn almost immediately interrupt our flow of warm feelings about those 17 women. “Bravo for philanthropy,” they snark, “but the United States would never build interstate highways through volunteers and donations, and we can’t build a national preschool program or a national drug recovery program with private money. We need the government,” they argue, “to step up and jump-start nationwide programs in early childhood education, job retraining, drug treatment, and more.”

Not so fast. Let’s go back for a moment to “bravo for philanthropy.” It tends to get lost in the collision between the grand historical causes for our national problems and the equally grand proposed national-government solutions. Let’s be clear about what they’re saying. In the face of overwhelming global economic trends—trends that so transcend Tulsa that they demand nothing less than a massive Marshall Plan for domestic policy—a small, local, hometown program has nonetheless figured out how to take at least 17 of the most hard-hit and turn them into employed, recovering citizens. That is not to be despised, because one might have thought the odds against this were overwhelming. But Kristof and WuDunn brush this off with a sarcastic “bravo,” and turn instead to proposed large-scale “solutions.” 

Yet there’s a distinctly musty odor emanating from their list of projects. Though one wouldn’t know it from this account, we’ve already pumped billions of federal dollars into these approaches, with precious little to show for it. There’s almost no variation on the themes of job training, early-childhood education, and addiction treatment that the federal government hasn’t already funded, and typically still funds today, in the face of reams of research evidence documenting disappointing outcomes. Turns out it’s a lot harder to build national programs to improve human behavior than it is to build an interstate highway.

So how about a snarky “bravo for government,” but if we’re really serious, let’s get back to that program in Tulsa?

Non-unique nonprofits

Because, of course, that program is hardly unique. Across the country, small nonprofits are tackling addiction, unemployment, offender reentry, and countless other problems, with great success. I’ve gotten to know some of them through my association with Bob Woodson at the Woodson Center, and with Howard Husock’s Tocqueville Project at the Manhattan Institute.  The most-satisfying part of my work as a program officer at The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation was locating and funding these small, grassroots groups in Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods, following the principles we learned from Bob Woodson. They’re summarized in his The Triumphs of Joseph.

Central to the success of these groups is that they’re built around small, tightly knit communities, united by the determination to overcome the considerable odds facing them. Such communities directly address and remedy the isolation, despair, and addiction that Kristof and WuDunn describe so movingly and accurately. No amount of federal-program spending can build that sense of community. It can only be done locally, concretely, and immediately, with responses adapted to the specific circumstances each hard-pressed neighborhood faces.

And this is where philanthropy—especially small and medium-sized foundations with a local focus—can play a critical role. Smaller foundations may despair when they hear, as they always do, that the sources of the problems before them are global and intractable. But they need not despair, because, just as is the case in Tulsa, there are groups in their own backyards that are successfully tackling these problems. 

As Bob Woodson argues, lower-income citizens are always coming up with ways to address their own difficulties according to their own values, through these kinds of grassroots efforts. All that’s needed is for potential supporters to take the time and effort to search them out. But that search needs to be driven by complete open-mindedness and utter humility—the conviction that a foundation representative, no matter how many academic degrees earned or public-policy articles read, knows far less about solving a given problem than the people most immediately affected by it, and who have already undertaken to solve it.

To big foundations, these grassroots groups are invisible. They don’t have fancy development brochures, professionally certified staff, or five year plans with elaborate theories of change. They have water stains on their ceiling tiles and duct tape on their indoor/outdoor carpeting. But they also have the trust and confidence of the neighborhood. Without that, no program, no matter how lavishly funded, will work.

At any rate, big foundations tend to view support for such groups as mere charity—that is, just treating the symptoms of the problems rather than getting to their root cause, as the hollow, endlessly repeated mantra goes. For them, truly solving these massive problems requires, as Kristof and WuDunn suggest, massive federal programs, and so philanthropic wealth is best directed at attempting to “leverage” government spending through vigorous advocacy. But as so much research is suggesting today, isolation, despair, and a sense of futility are the root causes, and there’s simply no way to address them except through programs that are immediate, personal, and supportive but demanding—which is to say, small, intense, and adapted to the idiosyncrasies of each local community.

As Liz Schorr pointed out in her classic Within Our Reach, successful public programs exhibit precisely these characteristics. But as government support for them increases, it becomes ever more difficult to preserve local flexibility and adaptability as they struggle with dense, choking networks of highly restrictive bureaucratic rules and restrictions. Whatever advantage may come with government funding, it seems, must be discounted against the straitjacket of red tape it imposes upon them. That’s why the smaller community-focused donor—completely open to local wisdom, willing to make general-operating grants for years in succession, and able to forego imposing the foolish grant requirements characteristic of larger foundations—can make a significant difference in addressing the problems that killed the Knapp family.

Let the big foundations plow their millions upon millions into lobbying for massive, government-subsidized programs that produce relatively negligible results. Meanwhile, the smallest donor—carefully attuned to the unique problems of, and solutions developed by, his or her neighbors—will be able to applaud the accomplishments of those 17 program graduates who have achieved what the experts said was impossible, given the grand, imposing global barriers they face. Approximated (not replicated) across the country thousands of times, in a rich and wondrous variety of approaches, this begins to look like something much larger, even systemic: the revitalization of American civil society. If you must have one, let that be the grand structural answer to the seemingly overwhelming problems of isolation, addiction, and despair.