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A showdown is coming for those of us who argue that charitable giving should attend first to our own community. We face the challenge of a new movement called “effective altruism” – a radical utilitarian approach to giving that might best be described as “strategic philanthropy on steroids.” In this view, localism is not just a suboptimal way of giving. It is in fact a morally questionable diversion of resources away from those who might benefit most from them.

As we gird our loins for this contest, we can rally around the deeply thoughtful and compelling manifesto for the cause of “philanthrolocalism” presented by Jeremy Beer at last year’s annual meeting of Front Porch Republic, soon to be published in Communio.

As he put it,

[P]hilanthrolocalism is a philosophy of giving that prioritizes the use of resources to help one’s own place, including one’s neighbors, community members, churches, businesses, cultural institutions, civic associations, and ecology. Philanthrolocalists seek to deploy resources to promote human flourishing and civic life in their own local communities.

In addition to our new manifesto, philanthrolocalism can count on at least one other not insignificant asset: the stubborn, deep-seated allegiance of the vast majority of American citizens.


Strategic Philanthropy vs. the American Way of Giving

Amazingly, after years of being told by the big foundations that they must “synergize collective impacts through collaborative outcomes-based metrics,” or whatever the currently fashionable jargon is for “send your money to the experts and let them spend it,” the American people simply aren’t having any of it. They continue to believe they should do the giving themselves, meeting the immediate needs of those closest to them.

And since only 14 percent of American giving comes from the foundations while 73 percent comes from individuals (figures from 2011), this is good news for philanthrolocalism.

I came to appreciate the nascent philanthrolocalist tendencies of the American people a couple of years ago when I debated Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, before the Grant Managers Network. (Nonprofit Quarterly later published my presentation, along with his response.)

Berger is in the midst of shifting his organization’s rating system away from bare-bones indicators of financial health to what he calls “results reporting.” Nonprofits hoping to win more stars from Charity Navigator will now have to demonstrate a commitment to measurable outcomes, thereby bringing impact awareness to the everyday donors who often consult his website.

Commenting on the new standards, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Suzanne Perry notes that their

sometimes jargony language [will] be familiar to anyone who has followed the push for more nonprofit measurement: Does the charity have a plausible ‘causal logic’ (a plan for achieving its goals)? Does it indicate how much of a particular action is required to produce a given result? Does it publish evaluation reports that cover the results of its programs at least every five years?

Berger is persuaded that the nonprofits willing to provide this new data will “find it easier to attract funding than charities that don’t. . . . This is what many donors are and will be looking for.”

By way of evidence, he cites a study of individual donors done by Hope Consulting in 2010, in which fully 90 percent of respondents said that an organization’s effectiveness is important to them.

Preparing to debate the redoubtable Mr. Berger, I was braced to concede that metric-mindedness surely by now must have made deep inroads among the public at large, as reflected in that 90 percent.

After twenty-some years of hammering relentlessly at the need to demand measurable outcomes for giving, surely the promoters of “strategic philanthropy” had begun to push public opinion in that direction (via shacory). Virtually every major national foundation has adopted the theory if not always the practice of rigorous metrics. Every annual philanthropic gathering for years has featured endless panels, speakers, and exhibition booths promoting a rapidly growing number of ever more elaborate frameworks for collecting and reporting outcomes.

Under the leadership of fervent strategic philanthropist Paul Brest, the Hewlett Foundation had gone so far as to launch the multi-year, $12 million Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative (NMI) in 2006, aimed precisely at converting everyday donors to the metrics mindset. Hewlett money was soon flowing to popular evaluation evangelists like GiveWell, GuideStar, and, of course, Charity Navigator.

Shortly after NMI was launched, a study by Hewlett and McKinsey & Company found a ready market for the numbers it would be providing: there was, it maintained, a “growing appetite among donors for performance-related information, as well as frustration with what is available today.”

In the face of this Big Push by strategic philanthropy and studies showing public receptivity to it, I was fully prepared, when I glanced at the Hope Consulting study entitled Money for Good, to find evidence of that appetite.

I underestimated the magnificent common sense of the American people. Money for Good in fact documents – in hard data, no less! – the enduring wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville, and his pronouncement that the genius of American democracy was its ability to nurture and anchor its political life in a vast, diverse array of strong, local civic institutions. However hollow and decrepit those institutions may appear in sociological studies, American charitable giving still very much takes its bearings from them, and provides hope for their survival.

One of the first “key findings” of the study immediately punctured the “growing appetite” myth: “While donors say they care about nonprofit performance, very few actively donate to the highest performing nonprofits.

As I summarized the findings for Nonprofit Quarterly:

      * Almost 80% of all gifts are “100% loyal, meaning that there is a virtual certainty that these gifts will be repeated next year.”

      * Only 35% of donors ever do any research, and almost three-quarters of these spend less than two hours at it.

      * Among those who do research, only 24% regard outcomes as the most important information.

      * Of those who do research, the overwhelming majority – 63% -- use it only to validate their choice once they’ve made it, to confirm that the group they’ve already chosen isn’t a total fraud. Only 13% use the research to actually help them choose between multiple organizations, i.e., to make decisions about which is comparatively the better performer.

 The upshot is that only 3 percent of donors give based on the relative performance of charities. I suppose it can be said that if there’s a “growing appetite” for metrics, there’s plenty of room to grow.


The Centrality of Local Giving for American Democracy

Just as important as the vanishingly small percentage of donors who give based on numbers are the reasons offered by those who don’t.

Hope Consulting reported that donors divide into six segments.

One of those segments is indeed the impact giver, but confirming what we’ve seen so far, that is only 16 percent of the donor population.

The largest category of non-numbers-driven givers, at 23 percent of the population, is the “repayer.” This person supports organizations that have had some sort of impact directly on the giver or a loved one.

The other categories each commands between 13 percent and 18 percent of donors.

They include the “casual giver,” who gives to well-known nonprofits that they happen upon; the faith-based giver, who contributes out of religious conviction; the “see the difference” giver, who donates to small, local charities because it’s easy to see first-hand the results; and the “personal ties” giver, who contributes because friends ask or work for the association.

In sum, 84 percent of giving is driven factors other than measurable outcomes – by reasons of the heart rather than the head, as it is sometimes contemptuously put.

But students of philanthrolocalism cannot help but notice that these reasons are not as irrational, random, and emotional as the metrics-minded would insist.

Rather, they reflect the web of personal relationships in which donors are enmeshed -- the immediate, tangible, local, often-religious community to which they belong. Giving expresses a deeply embedded love of and loyalty to what’s close, what’s familiar, what’s personally meaningful: family, neighborhood, and voluntary association.

This is a function of what Tocqueville described as the American principle of “self-interest rightly understood.” We don’t explain our charitable acts in grand or cosmic terms, he observed. We don’t say that we stopped to help that stranded traveller alongside the road out of love of humanity or universal altruism. Rather, we maintain that we stopped because we knew – or at least hoped -- that someone would do the same for us or our loved ones in the same situation.

Not particularly inspiring, perhaps, but far more reliable, accessible, and available than any abstract intellectual concept of humanitarianism. Small wonder, then, that Americans, as Hope Consulting found, give to groups from which they have themselves benefited, that they encounter in their daily lives, on the advice of friends and neighbors, producing practical results that they can see and touch, motivated by religious and moral convictions.

But Tocqueville would have added that this is not only the way Americans are. It’s also precisely the way they must be, for freedom to survive in the new world of democracy.

Americans, he argued, are all too likely in this modern, materialistic age to become completely absorbed in the pursuit of immediate, private commercial gain.

That’s why we need a vital local civil society, right in front of our faces, to draw us out of that individualistic isolation, to engage us in the affairs of our own immediate communities, wherein we learn through direct, daily interaction with others to become responsible, self-governing citizens.

Our vast, bewildering, and ever growing profusion of nonprofits – in all their naïve, amateurish, bumbling, redundant glory – may appall those who want to see social services delivered in a neat, orderly, rationalized and centralized way. But Tocqueville would have said that this is a small price to pay for the education in democratic self-government provided by our thick, organic, local network of civic associations.


The Emerging Threat of Effective Altruism

If philanthrolocalism can draw comfort from the sustained and overwhelming willingness of American citizens to give locally, however, metrics madness remains a threat to its survival.

(Not from the Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative, however. It was just cancelled by the Hewlett Foundation. Its new president evidently lacks Paul Brest’s crusading zeal for metrics, and sensibly concluded that the foundation was unlikely to make a significant dent in America’s deeply entrenched Tocquevillean behavior.)

But the cause of metrics-based giving is gathering itself for a fresh assault on decentralist civil society. We will be hearing more and more over the coming years about “effective altruism,” a cause inspired by Princeton professor Peter Singer’s strict utilitarianism; developed in books like Reinventing Philanthropy by Eric Friedman and the forthcoming Effective Altruism by William MacAskill; put into action by groups like charity evaluator GiveWell and the Robin Hood Foundation; and explored and promoted by websites like Effective Altruism Blog, 80,000 Hours, and Giving What We Can.

The upshot of this new movement is that metrics should determine not only which among similar groups pursuing a given cause deserves support. Rather, metrics should be the basis for choosing which cause to support in the first place. Paul Christiano calls it “cause prioritization.” Giving should seek to save or improve the most lives per dollar, no matter what a program does or where it’s located.

In his much-viewed TED talk “The How and Why of Effective Altruism,” Singer notes that the $40,000 spent providing “one guide dog for one blind American” could instead “cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness” in a developing country. He concludes, “I think it’s clear what’s the better thing to do.”

In Reinventing Philanthropy, Friedman similarly juxtaposes art museums in a wealthy city against illness in the developing world: “I think the relative merits of supporting art museums versus saving people dying of diseases that are easily preventable or curable are pretty clear. Both are ‘good’ causes, but one is likely to do a lot more good than the other.”


Effective Altruism vs. Strategic Philanthropy, Left and Right

Although this might sound like just another manifestation of strategic philanthropy’s metric-mindedness, it’s critical to understand that it is in fact a profound radicalization of it. Effective altruists make strategic philanthropists look like sloppy sentimentalists.

Strategic philanthropists like Paul Brest seek only to apply metrics to the selection of groups once a cause has been selected. But, altruist critics note, this foolishly leaves the choice of the cause itself willy-nilly to the all-too-often idiosyncratic, short-sighted, selfish impulses of the donor.

Here, effective altruism constructs a powerful critique of strategic philanthropy. Why should one seek such rigor in the technical details of giving, but be unwilling or unable to make any judgments about its larger purposes or ends? Does it really make sense for an advisor to say to a donor: “We have no authoritative advice to give you about the cause you should pursue, so just pick any one that strikes your fancy. But once you do that, we’re here to help you calculate down to the third decimal how effectively your grantees reach that arbitrary goal?”

Measurement, which is omnipotent in the realm of philanthropic means, seems to be impotent in the realm of ends. But, effective altruists sensibly argue, the choice of ends surely influences the overall impact of charitable spending far more decisively than merely fine-tuning the means.

In defense of strategic philanthropy’s agnosticism about the ends of philanthropy, however, it must be said that it is at least consistent with the principle of moral relativism, which is at the heart of so much of progressivism today. Who can say which purpose is better than another, when all such decisions, liberals argue, are just matters of personal opinion?

Although the progressive philanthropy watchdog group National Center for Responsive Philanthropy takes a strong moral stand for anti-poverty giving, the more consistently relativist liberal position would be: Who are you to judge if I say I prefer art museums to fighting poverty?

Curiously, many conservative philanthropists today seem to end up in the same place, embracing strategic philanthropy’s combination of objective means with subjective ends.

They have no problem with metrics, of course, since the demand for measurable outcomes resonates with the business backgrounds many of them bring to giving.

But in recent years, conservatism has had less and less to say about the appropriate purposes of philanthropy. In their desire to safeguard the private legal status of foundations against public intrusion, conservative lobbyists and leaders have shied away from making judgments about good and bad giving, lest such self-criticism invite unwelcome congressional attention. Conservative philanthropic publications have become almost as mindlessly upbeat and vacuous as those of the Council on Foundations, endlessly celebrating and promoting giving itself in all its forms -- as if it didn’t matter what the giving were for.

NCRP’s powerful moral demand for more spending against poverty is considered a particular threat to conservative philanthropy. After throwing up a few half-hearted skirmish lines (museums benefit the poor too!), conservatives quickly fall back on their main rhetorical fortress: the concept of “donor intent.” Before its walls, moral demands utterly lose their power. For here they come up against the only standard that truly counts: The donor is always right.

Donor intent is of course legally unassailable. But it’s also philosophically debilitating. It’s a quick, cheap way to cut off any substantive debate about the proper ends of philanthropy, because in the final analysis only the donor’s opinion counts.

Oddly, then, the normless drift of liberalism’s moral relativism – typically a prime target for conservatism – is faithfully echoed in conservative philanthropy’s almost-Nietzschean devotion to the groundless but resolute Will of the Donor.


The Problem of Localism for Effective Altruism

However antagonistic effective altruism is to strategic philanthropy in its liberal or conservative form, however, philanthrolocalism had best brace itself, for it must soon find itself in the bull’s eye. In effective altruism’s view, the tendency to focus charity within one’s own backyard is nothing less than a profound failure of moral imagination. But unlike institutional conservative philanthropy, philanthrolocalism dares fight back on the field of morality itself, without retiring behind the walls of donor intent.

Singer observes that the thousands of annual deaths from preventable illness tend to occur in communities where donors are unlikely to live. But “does it really matter that they’re far away? I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us, the fact that that they’re of a different nationality or race, none of that seems morally relevant to me.”

Friedman similarly complains that “90 percent of all foundations in the United States are restricted by their donors to specific geographic regions, usually to the city, county, or state in which donors live.” Yet “a donor is unlikely to live in the region where a donation will have the most impact.” He continues:

Are the homeless shelters and food pantries near you the best ways to reduce hunger and poverty? For most donors, the answer to these questions is "no.". . . Donors shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that it is easy to focus on their favored region without also reducing the impact of their donations.

Note that in its willingness to attack local-mindedness outright, effective altruism is far more corrosive to local giving than strategic philanthropy has ever been. True, once one starts down the metrics road, it isn’t long before the local grassroots groups so critical for teaching self-governance begin to seem bumbling, amateurish, and deficient. Soon measurable outcomes demand the displacement of such haphazard, decentralized efforts with centralized, data-driven, professional service programs. In this light, strategic philanthropy’s tension with philanthrolocalism is just the latest skirmish in the century-old war between root-causes philanthropy and “band-aid” charity.

Still, if a donor insists that his giving, albeit now technically more proficient, must be confined to a given locale, strategic philanthropy cannot object. It must remain resolutely agnostic about such choices.

The community foundation – a concept whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year -- often finds itself reflecting this duality. Although its geographic scope has been limited by donors to a given city or region, within those boundaries it will typically wield the full range of cutting-edge metrics techniques.

While strategic philanthropy cannot complain that 90 percent of foundations are geographically confined, it may insist that, within the given limitations, the maximum degree of professionalization, rationalization, and centralization be achieved. Thus has virtually every community foundation in America become, in spite of its name, nothing more than a minor league franchise of our largest and most technocratic private foundations.

Unlike strategic philanthropy, effective altruism finds any qualification of the purely utilitarian calculus of maximum human benefit to be morally unacceptable. So it must take particular umbrage at the notoriously widespread limitations “arbitrarily” imposed by localism. Effective altruism cannot hope to spread among the public until it has loosened the constraints imposed by local allegiances.

Mainstream liberal and conservative philanthropy cannot be counted on as allies in the coming showdown. They are obliged by principle simply to shrug their shoulders and concede that whatever the donor wants, the donor gets, whether it’s localism or universalism.

But philanthrolocalism must do better than this. It claims to affirm a specific, well-defined moral purpose for philanthropy. It must present a substantive argument on behalf of giving that aims to strengthen one’s own neighborhood or community, rather than to maximize utility wherever it is to be found. That is why Jeremy Beer’s manifesto is so important, and why there must now be more thought and writing devoted to this.


Community Embeddedness versus Detached Godliness

We would be ill-advised to continue to rely solely on the deeply rooted but inarticulate popular preference for local giving to keep decentralized civil society alive. Effective altruism appeals powerfully to the leadership class of the future -- young, intelligent professional people, many of them at the centers of cultural and academic influence. (The Effective Altruism Blog, for instance, is based at Oxford.)

While strategic philanthropy is nothing more than a charitable technology, effective altruism claims to be a comprehensive way of life, shaped by a demanding moral purpose that aims to satisfy the humanitarian zeal so much in evidence among the young. Effective altruists are, as GiveWell’s Holden Karnofsky put it, “global humanitarians, believing that human lives have equal intrinsic value regardless of nationality, ethnicity, etc.” What young person wouldn’t aspire to be a global humanitarian, rather than an obscure good neighbor?

So compelling is this claim that some young people form their major life-choices around it. They are willing to pursue lucrative careers but live like impoverished grad students, in order to remit the balance of their earnings to the most efficient maximizers of human welfare. A year ago in the New York Times, David Brooks described a young man who “seized upon the statistic that a $2,500 donation can prevent one death from malaria, and he figures that, over the course of a lucrative Wall Street career, he can save many lives. He was motivated to think this way by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.” The group 80,000 Hours aims as well to cultivate this way of thinking among young people.

Among the sensible objections Brooks raised to this sort of life choice, one bears directly on our concern for localism and the giving that sustains it. Brooks is “wary of inverting the natural order of affections.” Only if you “see the world on a strictly intellectual level” is a “child in Pakistan or Zambia . . . just as valuable as your own child.” But “not many people value abstract life perceived as a statistic as much as the actual child being fed, hugged, nurtured, and played with.”

The danger is that

. . . you might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around. You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far – rationality – and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around – affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence. Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god.

Community-embeddedness versus detached godliness: not a bad summary of the coming conflict between philanthrolocalism and effective altruism. Given philanthrolocalism’s view of human nature, moral sentiments can only be cultivated within the small, immediate communities that surround us and that press neighborly obligations upon us. Local communities are built upon and cultivate a mutual dependence among and compassionate attentiveness to those in our midst.

It may not be morally significant to Singer whether or not a person in need is “right in front of us.” But it is significant to Tocqueville, who warned us that we can no longer count on grand, detached, noble moral sentiments to sustain benevolence in our democratic future. In this fragmented, individualistic age, only an immediate, face-to-face encounter with others – those “right in front of us” -- would stir us out of our introspective, selfish concerns to pay attention to others’ needs.

Democratic self-governance as well as moral development depends on localism: The gritty, unpleasant, contentious world of local politics and civic association is a magnificent school of citizenship. It teaches us that others have views very different from ours, with seemingly obscure and illogical origins, perhaps expressed and pursued clumsily, and even obnoxiously. But we must learn to accommodate those views, not as an abstract humanitarian exercise, but rather as the only way to pave a road, secure a variance, or lay some drainage tiles. Tocqueville points out that what originates in this limited calculus of self-interest becomes over time a solid, reflexive civic habit. But the cultivation of this humble democratic virtue demands immediate involvement in local community.

Clearly, the global aspirations of effective altruism are unlikely to be satisfied by localism’s petty disputes and small satisfications. Localism is messy, complex, fragmented, parochial, and sustained by the concrete, unremarked fulfillment of the small daily obligations that bespeak neighborliness. Down this path there are no million-view TED talks, no seats on a glittering panel at Davos alongside Bill Gates and Bono.

The detached god of effective altruism is so much more appealing. Freed from entanglement in the messy reality of any particular community (where one’s manifest benevolence is so frequently misconstrued as self-righteous meddling), the effective altruist can scan the globe for the best lives-saved-per-dollar bargain. This is almost by definition not in our own backyard but probably in Africa. “In general, where human welfare is concerned, we will achieve more if we help those in extreme poverty in developing countries, as our dollars go much further there,” argues Singer.

As it turns out, such charitable activity at considerable remove is highly congenial to the altruistic but very busy young intellectual: to determine the good accomplished, the giver has only to glance at the reams of promising data generated by distant, professional service providers summing up faraway programs. There is no need ever to encounter face-to-face the unintended consequences generated by those interventions.

Nina Munk’s The Idealist, an account of the African philanthropy of Jeffrey Sachs -- yet another Singer acolyte -- captures this temptation nicely. Munk contrasts the upbeat data flowing into Sachs’ center at Columbia University with the massive disruption of traditional ways -- the haphazardly thrown up corrugated metal slums with their barren clinics and open sewers – inflicted by long-distance altruism on its erstwhile beneficiaries.

But this became apparent to Munk only because she spent a great deal of time among, and earning the trust of, the villagers themselves – those upon whom Sachs bestowed but a few carefully stage-managed hours, buoying local spirits with warm personal greetings direct from the Secretary General of the United Nations. The detached altruistic god, who would only be distracted by sustained face-to-face encounters, need never experience directly what it has truly wrought.


Effective Altruism and Infanticide

Perhaps the sharpest illustration of the contrast between detached altruism and embedded particularity is to be found in Peter Singer’s posture toward infanticide. His bluntly stated beliefs here are almost entirely unremarked within the effective altruism community, but are highly visible to conservatives.

Here we see Singer’s version of utilitarianism in its purest form. As he put it in Practical Ethics, a family “burdened” by a child with disabilities – and this includes a broad range of non-fatal and non-painful afflictions – might well conclude that its welfare would be maximized were it to euthanize that child in order to replace it with a healthier one. “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed." The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second.

It may be astonishing that Singer could imagine a flesh-and-blood family going through such a cold, sterile analysis about one of its own children. Yet it is precisely the analysis demanded by the utilitarian concern for maximum welfare, in which it is not only possible but necessary to weigh equally one’s own child against a child in Africa, a living but disabled child in the cradle against a hypothetically healthy “next” child. Only here do we finally see just how rigorous is the detachment from everyday human sensibilities demanded by effective altruism.

It may be tempting to dismiss Singer’s embrace of infanticide as an unlikely path for philanthropy to follow. But of course such a path would only lead directly back to the great original enthusiasm of modern American philanthropy. The first large national foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage -- were all, at their founding, avid proponents of eugenics.

In that view, the welfare of mankind demanded the preservation of the race’s healthy protoplasm. This could only mean the state-mandated removal of the genetically unfit from unenlightened families and communities, whose ill-considered efforts to nurture their disabled members only served to sustain and propagate defective genes. Happily, in this view, the state could avert expensive permanent institutionalization by recourse to the cheap, effective, and easily disguised technique of sterilization, rendering the feeble-minded safe to release back into the general population.

Although conservative critics frequently denounce Singer as a eugenicist, it would be more accurate to say that many of the original eugenicists were effective altruists. Both movements converge on the importance of the question: Why waste scarce resources on the permanently disabled and their likely progeny, when the same dollars could do so much more good among the healthy or readily salvageable? (Several German films from the 1930s brought this issue vividly to the silver screen.)

But Singer’s openness to infanticide introduces a level of icy, inhumane calculation at which even the most hardened eugenicists would have blanched. At any rate, there’s no reason to think that, if effective altruism spreads, foundations wouldn’t soon find their way back to their first great inspiration, manipulating the genetic code in order to maximize human welfare.


The Unpromising Terrain Ahead for Philanthrolocalism

One final note of caution: In the coming showdown between effective philanthropy and philanthrolocalism -- the detached god and embedded particularity -- it should be clear that the institutional lay of the land within the field of philanthropy clearly favors the former.

This was true from the moment early on when philanthropy proudly broke free of mere charity’s concerns with meeting immediate local needs and set out resolutely to solve problems once and for all by getting to their root causes. Since then, everything about philanthropy has pushed it away from localism toward globalism; away from particularity toward universalism; away from the concrete toward the abstract.

The very language of philanthropy today -- with its collaborating and synergizing, its convenings and learnings and collective impacts, its thought leadership and social entrepreneurialism -- betrays a profession that prides itself on detachment and abstraction, on models, theories, strategies, and formulas. Philanthropic argot even hesitates to be precise about the issues it aims to address: it funds “around” an issue, or “in that space.” Our large foundations today are almost completely untethered from the workaday world of their grantees, who finally must sit down face-to-face with a particular person and help him or her deal with an all-too-concrete and immediate problem.

As hostile as the institutional realities of philanthropy may be for philanthrolocalism, it still has one critical asset: the established habits of the individual donors who constitute the vast majority of charitable giving in the United States. While their durable good sense has managed to resist the relentless propaganda of strategic philanthropy, it now faces a much more formidable challenge from effective altruism. A critical task before us is to translate the sound opinion and practice of everyday Americans into a coherent doctrine of philanthrolocalism.

We must be able to respond when our philanthropic elites deride localist sentiments as intellectually deficient and morally bankrupt. That means building a compelling moral claim on behalf of the centrality of localism for the preservation of American democracy and the kind of human being it requires. It means refusing to tone itself down in the face of donor intent, or yielding to the relentless calculus of utilitarianism.

8 thoughts on “The coming showdown between philanthrolocalism and effective altruism”

  1. qzi says:

    Hopefully Effective Altruism wins the showdown. Charity that makes you feel good is important for your mental well-being, and conspicuous local charity is important for its motivating effect on others, but the majority of our donations should always go toward effective charities that primarily help other people, rather than inflating our own mood, ego, or social status.

    “There is this very, very old puzzle/observation in economics about the lawyer who spends an hour volunteering at the soup kitchen, instead of working an extra hour and donating the money to hire someone…

    If the lawyer needs to work an hour at the soup kitchen to keep himself motivated and remind himself why he’s doing what he’s doing, that’s fine. But he should also be donating some of the hours he worked at the office, because that is the power of professional specialization and it is how grownups really get things done. One might consider the check as buying the right to volunteer at the soup kitchen, or validating the time spent at the soup kitchen.”

  2. Jan Masaoka says:

    Thank you, Bill, for still having the energy to fight the good fight against “strategic philanthropy,” outcomes, and all the other beloved terms of the philanthropic-consultant industrial complex. Jan Masaoka

  3. Thank you, Mr. Schambra, for laying the cards on the table. As I was reading your fine piece, I kept saying to myself: how can the “effective altruists” with whom the author argues put “Singer”, “altruism” and “philanthropy” in the same sentence? You are right on to reminding us to consider the source: Singer is rational and insane … the conditions are not mutually exclusive.

    On another note, I’m building an organization that will have US residents funding small educational and social welfare groups in the global south … the donations will come from ex-pats who used to give to the groups in question when they lived next to them, and from their friends … the webs of connections that will form are not strictly local, but they will have started that way, and they are personal, not computer-generated.

  4. Excellent piece. One might add that the evidence cited by the effective altruists, that local donors are often remote from the most pressing human ills, might be interpreted quite differently: the reason local wellbeing is associated with local charity is because local charity is effective at creating local wellbeing. And perhaps one reason why some pressing human ills exist (such as oppression by warlords empowered by embezzled or intercepted philanthropic goods) is because of what Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy,” as practiced by the formidable Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House.

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