Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, has roundly critiqued American philanthropy in his newly published With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give. (A short version of the book’s argument can be found in a piece Stern wrote for Slate).
By his title With Charity for All Stern references Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. It’s an odd choice because Lincoln’s “With malice toward none, with charity for all” seems to intend something like the Pauline virtue of charity, or Christian love, familiar to us from 1 Corinthians 13’s “faith, hope, and charity.” Stern, instead, means philanthropic giving.
Stern’s book is a gloomy account of the nonprofit sector; during his time at NPR, Stern must have learnt that bad news sells better than good. Included in the catalogue of problems that Stern sees are the lack of government oversight; scams that prey on the vulnerable; accounting fraud; and excessive CEO salaries. These are real problems, but one might note that the charitable sector is far from uniquely marred by such problems -- this list seems at least as well suited to that part of the financial sector that led America into the housing market collapse and subsequent recession.
Stern also describes “charitable” hospitals that do little charity work and the dubious status of the Orange Bowl -- which rakes in millions in television revenues -- as a “nonprofit” venture, and he laments problems that arise when inexpert donors hamstring nonprofits by attaching strings to their gifts.
Stern blames many of the problems in American charities on a lack of attention to demonstrable results. As a case in point, he offers Chess In The Schools, which he describes as “a powerhouse on New York City’s charitable circuit” in spite of little evidence to support the charity’s claim that chess improves academic performance.
In making this complaint against Chess In The Schools, Stern doesn’t seem to consider whether Chess In The School might not be a marvelous success, not a failure, for providing chess instruction for 13,000 students in Title 1 schools during the 2012–13 school year, as it claims to do. Learning chess engages these students immediately in a rewarding game -- and will make a few of them life-long chess players. Isn’t that enough to be a success?
And, isn’t it possible that the metrics craze in philanthropy has pushed Chess In The Schools to offer a plausible, if weakly supported, metric to show the effectiveness of their work? Metrics can be helpful for charities, but only if they measure the real contribution of an organization (which might be teaching chess, in this case) rather than what can be easily measured (such as the reading and math scores of students in the chess program).
As a solution to the problems Stern sees in the charitable work, Stern’s core advice is that Americans should rely more on experts in their charitable giving: Americans with charitable dollars to give should look for charitable rankings produced by experts and published performance metrics; they should “follow the leaders” by giving to the same organizations supported by the Gates Foundation and other leading charities with expert staffs; they should pool their donations into charitable funds and allow the charitable fund managers to dispense gifts on their behalf; and government should be “reinvented” so as to be a leader in funneling dollars to effective non-profits under government direction through such means as the White House’s Social Innovation Fund.
However, it’s certainly not clear that the “experts” always know best. The Gates Foundation has made various “course corrections” in its philanthropic programs, implying that it found it hadn’t begun with (and perhaps has yet to find) the best approach. And the White House’s Social Innovation Fund has been criticized even by those who are largely friendly to the Obama Administration, such as Nonprofit Quarterly’s Rick Cohen, as lacking transparency and beset by other problems.
And, the real problem with turning to “experts” is that charity is most effective when people are personally invested in the organizations to which the give. Of course, people should be wary of scam artists and seek out organizations that effectively carry out their work. But charity is a vibrant institution only when people rely on their own judgment to determine what organizations to support with their money and volunteer hours. Citizens who turn their charitable dollars over to government and managerial “experts” to dispense would, I imagine, give less and less over time.
Indeed, if one were looking for a Lincoln speech to riff for the title of a book on charity, the Second Inaugural is the wrong place to look, in spite of its mention of “charity.” The better Lincoln speech is the Gettysburg Address, for it is truly the case that, to be effective, charity -- like government -- must be “of the people, by the people, for the people.”