One of the pleasures of summer is time to reflect, perhaps gazing at an expanse of water or a panoramic landscape. In a smaller, windowless indoor space I found an expansive and stimulating dialogue through the Leadership Roundtable that gathers scholars and practitioners in an intimate conference to consider the latest research and cast our gaze to the future of our field.
We heard the findings of a complex year depicted by Giving USA, and other significant faculty research, in tandem with virtuoso presentations from the campaign leaders of the Smithsonian and the Boys & Girls Club movement. As I paused to reflect on the year, I saw a blossoming of critique, punctuated by important milestones in philanthropy that challenge our leaders to become more knowledgeable and curious about ever-broader fields of inquiry.
We have a profusion of critiques about philanthropy that have become quite prominent through mass market books authored by names like Callahan, Reich, Giridharadas, and Villanueva. Their skeptical tone has been picked up by magazines such as The Atlantic in articles like “Philanthropy Serves the Status Quo: What if powerful foundations pushed for radical, large-scale change?” or the Vox Future Perfect Podcast that is devoting its season to muckraking pieces on philanthropy, including the May 22 episode that takes Carnegie’s philanthropy to task. Professor Richard White of Stanford claims that Carnegie’s lauded libraries were of little use to the workers in his steel mills as they were worked too hard to be able to take advantage of them.
Philanthropy is in the air and prominent in the mainstream media. You are right to think that the depictions of philanthropy as the handmaiden of excessive wealth and increasing social and economic inequality is only one of a range of ways to look at the role of generosity in how we lead our lives and engage with others. Yet, philanthropy is entering the broader public discourse, hobbled perhaps by narrow, pointed references to our current social ills. But the good news is that it is entering a broader consciousness. This represents an opportunity to engage, educate, and learn with a new and expanded audience.
Much of the critique we hear is limited to organized philanthropy and the donations made by the very wealthiest. Beyond the experimentation and pluralism that are occasionally conceded as pluses of big philanthropy, we hear less mention of the expanded sense of private engagement for public purpose by all of us—engagement that can expand the notion of citizenship beyond our relationship to the state.
How we relate to each other, through communal, informal or movement-like forms is also how we build our public space. Not all of doing good needs to seize the commanding heights or be funneled through the state to be successful or legitimate, or perhaps even democratic. Herein lie some of the key discussion points with the critiques that are flowering around us. I think we can learn and improve what we do by engaging the critiques that challenge philanthropy to justify its public purpose.
However, there is one kind of critique that is less useful and more narrowly self-serving. Thankfully rare, it downplays the importance of rigorous public research undergirding Giving USA to suggest that nonprofits are better off focusing on their own organizational information and would benefit from private consultancy done for a fee as an alternative to public knowledge. More, partial and proprietary insights will not advance knowledge in the field.
We have many fewer rigorous public sources of information compared to the commercial sector, and we need more systematic, public studies of how the world of private engagement for the public good is moving. Knowing your profits and losses in a context where you have no information about the GDP or other general trends is of limited value in planning your next steps.
What we do know is that we may be witnessing significant milestones in American giving behavior. For example, the number of households that give is decreasing, according to the the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy Panel Study. We also know from the Pew Research Center that emerging generations are less affiliated with religious institutions, which tends to lead to less giving. We also see declining volunteering rates.
The mirror image of this trend of fewer Americans participating is that a small, concentrated number of donors account for the upward trend in giving. How do we decide if these milestones represent a break with the past or a temporary downswing that will reverse in due course?
A hallmark of leadership is making judgments about such trends and their meaning for one’s organization or community. Ken Chenault, following Napoleon, speaks about a leader’s duty to “define reality and give hope.” Defining reality as the situation that exists in your office or your neighborhood alone will not get you very far. A leader needs to interpret a wide variety of trends that affects her or his mission.
Combining broad views of the very purpose of the sector, with the public policy issues that are affecting revenue sources, with the shared best practices of colleagues who have done extraordinary work in the field—bringing all of these together to illuminate where we stand is the leader’s challenge of synthesis. But not any synthesis will do. It has to resonate with my specific situation so that I feel empowered, hopeful, ready to take steps toward an uncertain future.
Enriched by the experience of the Leadership Roundtable, I left convinced that admirable and effective leadership is active, inspirational, and forward-looking, but also that one of its most valuable foundations is knowledge itself. As we look to the new academic year, I feel a joyful sense of responsibility to help our school make more of it, share more of it, and welcome more of you to partake of it.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean