Grassroots Rising: A Conservative Call for Philanthropic Renewal

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At a recent meeting hosted by the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, I found myself on a panel facing a hotel conference room filled with leaders of small, grassroots groups from around the country. They were eager to hear advice about how they might raise funds from the philanthropic sector, to meet the matches required by grants from the various federal agencies represented at the conference. My remarks on that occasion could not have been very encouraging.

It would have been nice to be able to reassure the audience that, if they had received one of the grants just then becoming available to grassroots groups from the federal government, then raising funds from private sector foundations would be a snap. But that would have been a lie. The fact is that foundations are probably even more impervious to unsolicited appeals from smaller, less formal nonprofit organizations than is government, and for reasons that are only marginally related to their faith orientation. The best advice I could give them–no doubt discordant words, coming from a former program officer at a conservative foundation–was “organize, organize, organize.” Organization is needed because, sadly, current major national associations of nonprofits typically fail to speak up on behalf of the smallest grassroots groups, even when, as often happens, they are ignored or harmed by organized philanthropy or government. That cries out for change.

In a nation wedded to the democratic faith that everyday citizens should be entrusted to address their own problems, it may seem odd that small, local associations representing such citizens are systematically overlooked by major public and private sources of support. But such has been the case going back at least to the turn of the 20th century.

The first modern foundations–Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage, established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–eagerly bought into the idea that social sciences offered an indisputably objective and rational way to order public affairs, and to deal with the causes of social disorder. As a Rockefeller mission statement put it in the 1920s, its funding was designed to “increase the body of knowledge which in the hands of competent social technicians may be expected in time to result in substantial social control.”

Hence, they bankrolled institutions that would ensure the triumph of expertise over popular ignorance: modern research universities like the University of Chicago, the first think tanks like Brookings, scholarly social journals like Survey, and planning and coordinating organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Social Science Research Council. Such institutions were to design, demonstrate, and pass on to the state for full funding programs that would get at the heart of social pathologies. As progressive sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross put it, “it is the function of private philanthropy to pioneer, to experiment, to try out new things and new methods,” and when they are sufficiently tested, “the community [must] take over the function.”

The War on Poverty in the mid-60s, in particular the theoretical underpinning of the community action program, epitomized these troubling anti-democratic tendencies. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan described it in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, community action was based on a new, shaky academic hypothesis about the “root cause” of poverty: the denial of low-income citizens’ access to mainstream society’s “opportunity structure.” That speculative social science notion had formed the basis for an initiative frequently claimed by modern philanthropy as one of its crowning achievements, namely, the Ford Foundation’s “Gray Areas” project, designed by legendary program officer Paul Ylvisaker. Long before any results were in from the demonstration sites, however, the Gray Areas model had been hastily drafted into service as the cornerstone for President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

How this all happened so quickly, Moynihan argues, can be explained by a process he called the “professionalization of reform.” By the 60s, in his account, the growth of social science expertise, the professionalization of the middle class with jobs based on that expertise, and the emergence of foundations eager to fund social science all insured that political reform was no longer driven by genuine democratic movements, but rather by credentialed professionals. And, as Moynihan noted, “professionals profess. They profess to know better than others the nature of certain matters, and to know better than their clients what ails them or their affairs.”

As conservative funders like the John M. Olin, Scaife, and Bradley Foundations began to emerge in the 80s and 90s, they heeded Moynihan’s message and rejected what they characterized as anti-democratic, centralized bureaucratic rationalism. Instead, they funded scholarship that made this intellectual critique, as well as practical programs that reflected the determination to return authority to everyday citizens, organized within their own self-governing institutions. At the Bradley Foundation, where I worked for 10 years, this came to be called the “new citizenship” agenda. Under that rubric, Bradley supported many local grassroots programs in Milwaukee that had theretofore been all but invisible to the downtown elites. But it also funded the work of scholars and activists who developed the theory behind that approach, and who would go on in the late 90s to be associated with President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative: Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, and Myron Magnet, author of The Dream and the Nightmare, both of which are said to have been the theoretical works behind the initiative; Robert Woodson, director of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who first introduced then Governor Bush to groups in Texas representing effective religious mediating structures; and John DiIulio, first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Yet most foundations still insist they are interested primarily in getting to the “root causes” of problems, through innovative, experimental programs reflecting cutting-edge professional expertise in the area of concern. When a foundation undertakes a new program, therefore, its first step is to commission a team of university researchers to pinpoint just where the cutting edge is. It then issues a request for proposals, which elicits pledges from various nonprofits–typically those that are large, well-funded, and similarly staffed by professionals–that they will faithfully carry out programs designed according to the foundation’s specifications, reflecting the latest and best academic analysis. Even before the formal program evaluations are completed by yet another crew of professionals, the foundation’s glossy annual report will celebrate the resounding success of its innovative initiative, resolving to convey its lessons to public officials, who will no doubt be eager to redesign public policy accordingly. Thus philanthropy today still very much reflects the professionalization of reform, with policy initiatives passed around from one coterie of experts to another as they are developed, implemented, evaluated, and promoted, without ever being sullied by the hands of untutored everyday citizens.

This, then, is why I could not be more encouraging to that roomful of grassroots groups who were hoping to be told the secret for coaxing funds from foundations for their projects. Even though the executive branch of the federal government was making a good-faith effort to reach beyond its traditional grounding in professionalism and centralization and had already begun making grants to smaller, grassroots groups, I knew that most major private foundations were unlikely to follow suit by providing matching funds. Because most of the grassroots groups were rooted in the religious faiths that continue to animate the citizen’s view of policy, they could not be useful to experts in advancing the frontiers of contemporary social science.

It would be pleasant to believe that the executive branch’s relative openness to small, grassroots programs represents the wave of the future, rather than philanthropy’s closed-mindedness. But I fear this is wishful thinking. While the executive branch may be trying to establish a lifeline to the grassroots, the legislative branch’s latest moves would probably make life even harder for smaller groups. Inspired by a string of abuses by foundation and charity leaders, Congress is now considering a series of measures–ranging from a requirement that a group’s nonprofit status be reviewed every five years, to the suggestion that government fund a private sector accrediting agency for nonprofits, down to a requirement that a group’s Form 990 include a “detailed description of annual performance goals and measurements for meeting those goals”–that would create substantial new reporting and administrative burdens for nonprofits. They would probably have limited effect on curbing abuse among larger nonprofits, while making life almost impossible for the smallest nonprofits.

Furthermore, as Peter Frumkin observed about the Tax Reform Act of 1969, whenever Congress moves forcefully into the realm of philanthropy, the almost inevitable response from foundations is to become even more formal, bureaucratic, and professionalized than they are already prone to be, in order to meet higher standards of public accountability. Under such battened-down conditions, funding for smaller, less formal nonprofits becomes even less likely.

Other trends–arguably distant echoes of Congress’s earlier foray into the third sector–also suggest that life is not going to become easier for grassroots nonprofits. Not only are foundations becoming more professionalized, but so is nonprofit management in general. Indeed, the academic production line for foundation and nonprofit management professionals seems lately to have put on three shifts. As Seton Hall professor Naomi Wish put it, nonprofit studies is “one of the fastest growing fields in academia.” She and her collaborator Roseanne Mirabella note that in 1990, only 17 universities offered a graduate concentration (three courses or more) in the management of nonprofit organizations. By 2001, that number had exploded to 97, with some 242 institutions offering courses in nonprofit management. Today, students can enroll in courses teaching accounting, economics, strategic management, marketing, statistics, organization behavior, planning, budgeting, human resource development, diversity, social and public policy, and fundraising–all specially tailored for the nonprofit sector, leading most often to a master’s degree in public administration, social work, business administration, or nonprofit management.

As training programs located at universities, the new professional training programs risk becoming detached from the real world–a world in which, as David Horton Smith points out, small, informal organizations may occupy as much as 90% of the territory, a vast realm of uncharted “dark matter” within civil society where formal academic training is far less useful for leadership than practical experience and wisdom. In her contribution to Michael O’Neill and Kathleen Fletcher’s Nonprofit Management Education, Mary Tschirhart reported that the nonprofit managers surveyed (many of whom had no undergraduate degree, much less advanced management training) had little interest in taking university courses in the field, and when hiring staff “are not particularly impressed by applicants with nonprofit management degrees or courses in nonprofit management.”

But the trend toward professionalization may be more than just irrelevant to smaller nonprofits–it will probably be downright harmful.

Especially as foundations and government agencies fund more and more “capacity building” in nonprofits, they will come to view professionally built capacity as a prerequisite for funding. Related to the trend toward professionalism is the infatuation with measurable outcomes and evaluation. While social scientists may have proven to be high-handed and ineffective as prospective program designers, they can at least–so they tell us–determine retrospectively whether or not a program has worked. Government has fully embraced this idea in the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993; the United Way is hoping that organizational emphasis on measurable outcomes will enable it to restore donors’ confidence in its distributions. Foundations have been enthusiasts as well, no doubt in part because objective performance measurement appeals not only to management and staff, but also to the prominent businessmen and financiers who sit on their boards, for whom sheets of numbers are indispensable tools of the trade.

The problem with measurement in general, however, is that the “gold standard” of scientific experimental research–namely, designing a narrowly focused social intervention, introducing it exactly the same way across a series of sites, and then comparing the outcomes to “control groups,” or sites with identical characteristics but not subjected to the treatment–has proven to be cumbersome, expensive, and occasionally ethically trammeled, and has tended to produce results far too late to be useful to planning. A popular alternative to this approach today is “theory-based evaluation.” This approach, which is de rigueur among today’s more sophisticated foundations, employs a “logic model” or “theory of change” to explain how a complex range of interrelated community elements might be brought together to produce “social change.” Actual outcomes from the subsequent program can then be compared to predicted outcomes.

Today, there are more than 100 often conflicting approaches to measurement on offer to foundations, government, and nonprofits. Community activists champion “participatory evaluation,” while wealthy entrepreneurs are drawn to “social return on investment.” Many proprietary programs are now taking the field, including Patton’s utilization-focused evaluation, Stufflebeam’s decision/accountability-oriented evaluation, Scriven’s goal-free evaluation, Shadish’s needs-based evaluation, and Norton and Kaplan’s Balanced Scorecard measurement-based management approach.

Ironically, even on those occasions where programs are fully analyzed, as research by Peter Frumkin has found (see the article on page 46), there is no evidence that funders have used the findings to alter their grantmaking patterns. At any rate, the new emphasis on evaluation and measurable outcomes is yet another hurdle that larger nonprofits can handle without too much difficulty. It becomes just another one of those quirky whims of donors to be indulged until the next funders’ fad moves in. For smaller nonprofits, though, the expense and effort that go into measurement often do not pay off either in grants or in improved performance.

These trends toward increasing regulation, professionalization, and measurement further reinforced my sense of inadequacy as I looked out at that roomful of grassroots leaders seeking the key to achieving private sector support. My final piece of advice to them–organize!–reflected my skepticism about the willingness of the larger existing national associations of nonprofits to take into consideration the grassroots perspective. Almost inevitably the larger nonprofits in such associations–those with sufficient institutional depth to pay the dues, send staff to conferences and conventions, and detail leaders to serve on boards and committees–will guide policy for the associations. It would be unrealistic to expect them to pay much attention to the concerns of the unwashed masses of nonprofits that seldom show up at annual meetings, if indeed they are members at all. It would be even more unrealistic to expect them to do so when the trends of concern are being aggressively promoted by both foundations and government, two major sources of financial support for the nonprofit sector.

At any rate, mainstream nonprofits tend to view regulation, professionalization, and measurement not as threats or problems, but rather as indicators of the sector’s growth and maturity. That nonprofit management today can claim to be a profession, with applicable legislation to learn, skills to master, and credentials to dole out, means that the field has come of age, and serves to elevate the status of those who earn the appropriate credentials. The persistence of nonprofits run by amateurs without credentials is not a blessing to be celebrated, but an embarrassment from which eyes should be averted. It is unlikely that newly installed nonprofit professionals would reach back to assist their non-credentialed former colleagues by raising concerns about the very trends that now burnish their prestige.

Any new association genuinely devoted to the interests of smaller, grassroots nonprofits would have to begin from an assumption very different from the progressive view on which major philanthropies and government are built. The first step would be to drop the belief that public policy should reflect the superior understanding of trained professionals situated in large nonprofits, foundations, and government, and to seek instead to help citizens work out for themselves an understanding of the public good, gathered in their own indigenous grassroots institutions. Programs would not originate at a high level of intellectual abstraction, reflecting only views of university and program staff experts steeped in the latest literature on social policy. Rather, they would originate with the views of citizens at the grassroots, with their understanding of the problems they face, and how they would like to go about addressing them. Solutions tailored by citizens who actually live with the problems are more likely to combine the unique admixture of elements appropriate for this particular neighborhood at this particular moment. Community ownership will ensure that these approaches are supported and sustained over the long haul, rather than evoking the sort of resistance that often greets programs designed by remote experts and “parachuted” into neighborhoods.

Perhaps most important, the process of formulating and proposing solutions to their own problems cultivates in citizens the skills essential to democratic self-governance–formulation of persuasive public arguments, deliberation, compromise, and moderation of expectations about what the public sector can reasonably accomplish. As Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in his classic Democracy in America, only in such small, local, decentralized settings do Americans learn the essentials of the “science of association” so critical to sustaining democratic self-governance in America.

Contemporary policy experts tend to regard references to Tocqueville’s decentralist views as evidence of a romantic, retrograde yearning for the good old days of yesteryear. But it remains true today and always that an immediate, hands on encounter with the messy, contentious, half-measured world of everyday self-governing politics is the best training for citizens. They are then able to enter the larger worlds of state and national politics with a mature appreciation for the subtleties, shadings, and complexities of democratic self-governance.

A new association looking out for the interests of smaller nonprofits might be able to count on support from some interesting bedfellows. For there are in fact some foundations on both the left and right who might be able to put aside ideological differences long enough to support a grassroots uprising. Going back to the 60s, right and left not only share a critique of technocratic elitism, but more important, they share a desire to restore democratic self-governance to a central place in philanthropy’s understanding of its purposes. To be sure, this desire expresses itself in different ways across the two camps. Conservative philanthropy is more inclined to support small, grassroots groups, including especially faith-based institutions, which aim to solve the problems immediately before them based on moral and spiritual commitments like personal and community responsibility and self-help. Philanthropy on the left gravitates toward support of groups affiliated with the community organizing movement, which typically embody and seek to promote a more encompassing ideology of “social justice,” defined by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s report Understanding Social Justice Philanthropy as “equal distribution of political, economic, and social power.” In practice, however, it is not so easy to assign groups to one or another category, especially in recent years.

At any rate, funders moved by the conviction that smaller, local grassroots groups have a genuine capacity for democratic self-governance will focus their grant decisions primarily on that quality and its successful execution. They will trust the people themselves to select their own organizational ends and means, and not prejudge them according to whatever political or religious impulses propel them through the deeply challenging daily work of organizing their neighborhoods to solve their own problems. If foundations on the right and left can relax the rigid ideological filters that all too often influence what we understand to be “authentic” democratic activity, we will no doubt find ourselves more and more drawn to the same sort of groups. There can be no doubt that the common enemy of the left’s and the right’s civic activism is the prevailing mainstream assumption, drawn from the enduring prejudices of the adherents of social engineering, that grassroots groups are parochial, volatile, disorganized, poorly managed, and duplicative, unworthy of support by the large, sophisticated foundations which alone possess the expertise required to design effective social interventions.

Although larger nonprofits and their associations might not take kindly to this new representation by small nonprofits and their unconventional allies, in the long run, the entire nonprofit sector would be the beneficiary. As Lester Salamon and other nonprofit scholars have pointed out, the third sector finds itself facing something of an “identity crisis,” as the larger nonprofits become ever more intertwined with government funders and profit-making ventures, and as they take on all the trappings of large-scale, professional service providers. Salamon insists that “America’s charities have moved well beyond the quaint, Norman Rockwell stereotype of selfless volunteers ministering to the needy and supported largely by charitable gifts.” Yet the public still foolishly clings to that stereotype, he notes, and so reacts unpleasantly whenever they find a formerly trusted and revered nonprofit behaving like any other large, complex, bureaucratic institution.

While Salamon suggests that nonprofits need to reeducate the public about these new developments, I would suggest that the nonprofit sector needs to reeducate itself about its ultimate purpose. That purpose is to summon forth the capacity of Americans to become active citizens, tackling their own problems in their own voluntary associations. If the sector becomes simply another provider of social services competing for grants and contracts with government and corporations, it has fundamentally lost its way. No re-educating of the public will conceal that fact. Happily for the sector, and in spite of powerful trends and institutions that tend to discourage it, citizens continue to believe that when they face a problem, it is worth their while to get together with their neighbors to try to solve it. The result is thousands upon thousands of informal or barely formal nonprofit organizations in America, grappling with public concerns in ways that might appear to experts to be amateurish, wasteful, duplicative, and inefficient, but that nonetheless serve to teach each new generation of Americans the fundamentals of self-governance.

The nonprofit sector desperately needs to remind itself that the scruffy, grassroots groups seemingly on its margins–far from being primitive, embarrassing atavisms of a bygone era–in fact embody and reflect the sector’s very reason for being, the unique role it fills in American democracy. If a new association for smaller nonprofits could remind larger nonprofits of this central truth, then the entire sector and the republic itself would be the beneficiaries.

About the Authors

William A. Schambra is director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute. Krista Shaffer, research associate at the Center, contributed to the article.