Supporting a dynamic marketplace for human prosperity

On Feb. 12, the Philanthropy Roundtable and the John William Pope Foundation co-hosted an event in Raleigh titled “How and Why Free-Market Public-Policy Donors Give to Charities That Help the Poor.”

The transcript below is of a speech given by Alicia Manning, Director of New Citizen Programs at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

The Roundtable has so eloquently set the stage for this discussion by reinforcing, through the very existence of its Economic Opportunity program, the idea that humans thrive where liberty and personal responsibility coexist. I’m not sure whether former Professor Riggs would agree that what I’m about to suggest can be properly considered economic theory, but I will posit an idea nonetheless: a society that is both free and humane is a duality that requires both a supply of free people and a demand for freedom. Philanthropy can work on both sides of this equation.

The extent to which American citizens are currently free is obviously open to debate, but to the extent that there is still a supply of free citizens to assemble, speak and associate freely, it is safeguarded through the efforts of those assembled here as well as others who work to mitigate the effects of an ever‐expanding government and evermore powerful quasi‐governmental entities that adopt a statist approach to dealing with citizens’ problems.

To counterbalance all that freedom, however, a robust society also requires private civic institutions, or mediating structures, as some in academia refer to them, where the demand for freedom is fomented. A vigorous civil society doesn’t only help the poor; it enables all of us to live lives of mutual support and concern, religious expression, and cultural richness. It gives each of us a visceral experience of connectedness and meaning that elucidates all that we stand to lose by surrendering authority over our daily lives.

The Bradley Foundation is engaged in nurturing both sides of this equation, but I am going to talk almost exclusively about how grantmakers can participate in the development of a more robust civil society, improve their communities, and transform lives in the process. I should first describe our mission, which is straightforward. The Foundation is concerned with strengthening American democratic capitalism; supporting limited, competent government; supporting a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual, and cultural activity; defending at home and abroad American ideas and institutions; and recognizing that responsible self‐government depends on enlightened citizens.

The Bradley Foundation was established in 1985, and early on, its national and international policy programs were well‐developed. Local grantmaking in our home city of Milwaukee, however, was less sophisticated, consisting mainly of grants to large, mainstream charities and causes that benefitted from high visibility or at least friends in high places. By the early 1990s, through our increasing involvement in welfare reform and the then‐burgeoning school choice movement, we had begun to realize that a properly conceived local program could be deployed strategically in service of our broader programmatic goals by furnishing practical examples that reinforce our policy objectives.

For reasons that are fairly evident, establishing a community‐based grant‐making program modeled after those of the large, mostly progressive foundations that support the “poverty industrial complex” was not going to work. Rather than mimic the programs of those foundations by dividing our programs into issue‐based categories, hiring subject‐matter experts, and simply slapping on a conservative veneer, our board of directors decided to do something different. For nearly two decades, now, the Foundation has chosen to identify and support grassroots and faith‐based groups run by visionary leaders who are close to the problems they aim to address.

We sought out the expertise of the esteemed Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who taught us how to root out the hustlers from the real deals. Now, we award such groups general support, trusting that they are in a better position than we to determine how to prioritize the allocation of their funds. Often, we support them over a long period time, and the ongoing exchange of information that is a necessary part of the process of grant‐making takes place against the backdrop of an established relationship. This approach has been more compatible with the Foundation’s broader interests in increasing local control and portraying citizens, even poor ones, as dignified human beings who are capable of the fullest measure of participation in a vigorous civil society. It has also been very effective at solving community problems.

Presently, our local grant‐making covers an array of issues, but as it pertains to helping people help themselves, there are eight criteria we seek to identify in organizations we support:

  • They promote personal responsibility and self‐help over victimhood and dependence.
  • They capitalize on the private initiative of citizens to govern themselves.
  • They have important leaders who serve as moral authorities and who are personally invested insolving community programs.
  • They conduct work that is transformative, focusing on personal relationships and character development, often in the context of religious faith, as opposed to transactional, focusing on service delivery.
  • They foment movements within fields or organizations that drive a wedge between those who promote ineffective solutions and those who promote effective solutions to community problems.
  • They have a significant economic effect on the city either by directly improving neighborhoodsor by rendering residents more capable of being economic contributors.
  • They are programmatically interconnected so as to form an interdependent community.
  • They serve as important neighborhood anchors that have a stabilizing effect.

Too often, in our work, we encounter other donors who are interested in these ideas, but make mistakes in the application of them. These are donors who have built, from the ground up, the businesses that have supplied their wealth, or they are only one degree removed from their forebears and have a personal stake in the stewardship of their institution’s funds. They often contribute generously to causes that bolster the supply of free people through policy reforms, but lack confidence in their ability to identify the entrepreneurs who possess the local wisdom to solve problems others deem intractable and whose work ultimately results in the cultivation of citizens who want to be freer.

Because they have been told that philanthropy is the purview of experts, they sometimes adopt over‐complicated, jargon-laden grant‐making strategies that turn helping people into a science that requires a level of precision and scrutiny usually reserved for nuclear fusion. They fail to recognize that the wisdom they have acquired through both the navigation of countless relationships and the resolution of countless issues in their professions and daily lives is exactly what struggling people in struggling neighborhoods need. They need social capital, and they need to understand how to develop it.

I am going to point to three areas in which I think donors get bogged down, preventing them from finding and supporting organizations that effectively help the poor. First, they mistake management for leadership. Everyone appreciates good management. Sometimes, however, the most well‐managed operations are also the most inconsequential. Conversely, I could tell you a dozen aggravating stories of organizations with extraordinary, life‐changing programs whose bad management has threatened to derail them or has shut them down entirely. Management is important. Leadership is more important.

People in poor neighborhoods desperately need visionary leaders. They need someone in their lives that they don’t want to disappoint.

The people in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee’s near‐north side need Sharon Adams, whose career took her to New York City for several decades before she returned there to live in her childhood home. Crushed by the crime and decay she saw, and angry that longtime residents were too frightened to sit on their front porches, she gently but deliberately led her neighbors down a path of self‐determination and neighborhood renewal.

Less than a decade later, North 17th Street has a peach orchard, hoop houses for winter gardening, and bees. Vegetables and flowers grow on every spare foot of property. Sharon’s organization, Walnut Way Conservation Corporation, has incubated several small businesses owned by neighborhood residents, including painting, landscaping, and catering companies and a juice bar. A neighborhood kitchen has become a gathering place for honey processing, canning classes, and family celebrations. The lives of longtime residents were documented through an oral history project. Walnut Way has created and is currently implementing a neighborhood plan revolving around wellness that involves major capital improvements and the willing, voluntary participation of dozens of other nonprofits who have also been inspired by Sharon. Residents made these changes themselves, and none of it would have happened without Sharon’s strong faith, her strong will, her gentle wisdom, and her positive aura. Leaders are assets in which to invest. Management can come later.

Second, free‐market donors often mistake language for ideas. There are groups of people who say they are helping troubled kids avoid gangs, excel in school, and learn life skills – and they actually are. There are groups of people who say they are helping troubled kids avoid gangs, excel in school, and learn life skills – and they are actually just shuffling them around a building, perhaps keeping them safe but not much more. The problem lies in the fact that these two groups often look quite similar on paper. Grant‐seekers, especially the larger ones with dedicated development staff, know how to use evocative language. They also know how to co‐opt terms that were once meaningful to free‐market adherents, populists, and believers. The only way to know the difference is to visit and ask the right questions.

Many donors apply a political or philosophical purity test to grant‐seekers, screening out those who use certain buzz words that make them uncomfortable. Conservatives cringe when they hear the words social justice or advocacy or, my favorite term du jour, collective efficacy. Grassroots leaders often don’t have the luxury of ensuring that all their communications adhere to a tidy ideological framework. They sometimes use words that float around in the nonprofit lexicon without realizing, or caring, that they are loaded terms to different groups of people. Sometimes they intend to convey the same meaning as that of a political movement that uses a very specific definition of a particular term. Sometimes they don’t. It’s up to us to figure it out.

Other organizations are blatant about their support for causes or public figures that instantly alienate conservative donors, as often evidenced by the posters that can be found on the walls of their headquarters. I am urging donors to overlook this. If an organization possesses many or most of the criteria I listed earlier, and if a funder’s investigation leads him to believe that it is programmatically effective and not actively working to undo the policy goals he is trying to advance in other areas of his grant‐making – let it go. Grassroots leaders who are both charismatic and competent are fairly rare; we need all of them to save our struggling communities. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, conservatives have not successfully created a narrative that compels those in the trenches to join our cause. Donors need to trust that the people who have been helped by effective grassroots groups, and particularly their children, are one step closer to understanding how a free society affords them more opportunities.

Lastly, donors mistake transactions for transformation. The ability to precisely measure outcomes is not a harbinger of an organization’s effectiveness. The evidence‐based outcomes craze is overblown. David Bosworth is a professor of creative writing at the University of Washington who writes about culture in his spare time, including the subject of philanthropy. He has coined a new term that accurately describes the current, ubiquitous obsession with enumerating every meal ever eaten, every meeting ever attended, and each human encounter that has ever taken place. He calls it quantiphilia. Quantiphilia plays on the insecurities of educated people in a time of uncertainty. It implies that whatever framework existed for considering effectiveness in this arena before was inadequate or at least not based on evidence that would hold up in a case worthy of publishing in a scholarly journal.

Before I get into too much trouble, let me clarify that I am not trying to suggest there is no value in measuring anything. Certain, basic information is critical to a donor’s ability to judge a group’s effectiveness. Fiscal responsibility is essential. Similarly, organizations that proclaim the significance of outcomes that are somehow not in proportion to their budget size raise a red flag and can lead donors down a path of inquiry that can be constructive for both grantor and grantee. For example, I recently learned about a six‐week academic program that served roughly 120 kids and had a budget of roughly $200,000. At that price tag, a private tutor could have been hired for each participant, but without both the numerator and denominator, it would be impossible for a donor to make the judgment that the program is not likely to be an effective use of his scarce resources. And aside from their intrinsic value as empirical data points, outcomes can serve as important indicators of an organization’s inclination toward transparency, its ability to communicate effectively, and its health in general. We track all kinds of outcomes at the Bradley Foundation for all of these reasons.

However, if one is looking to revitalize civil society, one is, in essence, looking to incite a movement. It should be the hope of every donor that the local initiatives in which he invests will gain momentum beyond the scope or effect of the resources he has invested. If this is the case, how could the donor’s individual impact possibly be isolated and analyzed? In this context, a fixation on the precise measurement of narrow sets of program outcomes is to miss the forest for the trees. This brings us to the heart of the quandary presented by quantiphilia: a preoccupation with measurement invariably leads to the funding of what can be measured. If a funder’s objective is to support service delivery, perhaps that’s appropriate. But if a funder’s objective is to support the engines of community that generate a demand for freedom – the little creators of good culture in the context of which services are sometimes delivered – it must consider an organization’s Lasagna Factor.

All of us need to belong to naturally diverse, interdependent communities of mutual support, but this is particularly true of poor, vulnerable people. For example, people returning to the community from prison need more than a job and an apartment. They need a credible role model; a friend who has walked in their shoes and can help them avoid the landmines of old groups of friends and disapproving family members. They need someone to help them deal with the emotional insecurity of having to make hundreds of small decisions throughout their suddenly unstructured days. People who form organizations to do this kind of work do so because it is a calling for them. They don’t limit the scope of their efforts to what they get paid to do. If a member of a community of ex‐prisoners needs to move, someone brings their pick‐up truck, if something breaks, they bring a toolbox, and if someone dies, they bring lasagna. They don’t have a lasagna program, and heaven knows they don’t have a lasagna budget, but lasagna appears. Personal transformation only occurs in the presence of relationships built on trust, respect, and love. Donors who care about self‐government must support organic communities that promote self‐help, and they must find alternative ways to assign value to their work. They must consider the long‐term sustainability and the incredible leveraging of volunteer resources of organizations that have a high Lasagna Factor.

I will close simply by saying that donors who wish to alleviate poverty in ways that don’t impede economic growth or personal liberty must adjust their thinking about popular trends in philanthropy. Certainly, they should let the Roundtable be their guide for reasonable, detailed information about effective grantmaking in this arena. But they should also trust their own instincts, which can only be honed by getting personally acquainted with those special organizations that play a part in protecting and restoring American culture.