Philanthropy’s Positive Impact on Community

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The article in question:

Philanthropy’s War on Community, William SchambraWriting in 1952, Raymond Fosdick, long-time president of the Rockefeller Foundation, provided this description of its first board meeting in 1913:

The question which faced the trustees as they sat down to their first meeting was how the broad objective of their charter was to be implemented.  What constitutes the “well-being of mankind throughout the world?”  A large number of applications had already been received, and it is significant that they were all declined, including one from the YMCA for the rehabilitation of buildings located in Dayton, Hamilton, and Marietta, which had been damaged in the recent floods along the Ohio River Valley.

Mr. Gates phrased the objection:  “The Rockefeller Foundation should in general confine itself to projects of an important character, too large to be undertaken, or otherwise unlikely to be undertaken, by other agencies.”  This was in line with the emphasis which Mr. Rockefeller himself, six years earlier, had placed on what he called “finalities.”  “The best philanthropy,” he had said, “involves a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

Here, at the inaugural gathering of what was at the time the world’s largest foundation, was enunciated the doctrine that has governed mainstream American philanthropy for much of its existence….

Read the full article

The Council on Foundations’ response:

William Schambra’s speech, as published in Nonprofit Quarterly on September 18, grossly mischaracterizes the role of philanthropy and the impact it generates in countless communities around the globe. Schambra singles out a shameful piece of global scientific history—eugenics—to assert that philanthropy pays little if any attention to the voices and needs of communities. In doing so, he unnecessarily undermines the strategic insight, commitment, passion, and impact that exemplify the growth and evolution of organized philanthropy during the past 100 years.

Schambra’s speech ignores the influence and change generated by the thousands of foundations, large and small, that have been positively engaged with communities for nearly a century. He uses an outdated and isolated example to assert that philanthropy continues to ignore the true needs of communities, believing instead that its resources, research, and reputation will always lead to the best solution. He disregards our country’s more than 700 community foundations, whose primary purpose is to improve the quality of life of their local citizens.

Take the Cleveland Foundation—the world’s first community foundation and one of the largest—which has been improving the lives of Greater Clevelanders since 1914. Its Evergreen Cooperative Initiative (ECI) is working to create living wage jobs in six low income neighborhoods. With substantial support from the federal government and major institutions in Cleveland, the ECI has successfully started two cooperative businesses and is about to launch a third. Virtually every local organization has benefited from the Cleveland Foundation’s largesse, including those serving the region’s most vulnerable populations. Among these grantees are the Cleveland Foodbank, the Free Clinic of Greater Cleveland, the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland chapter of the American Red Cross, the area’s community development corporations, and its many hospitals. More recently, the foundation catalyzed the State of Ohio’s transformative public school reform movement.

Cleveland is just one—out of thousands—of foundations supporting community. The examples are too numerous to list, but all consistently and genuinely work to strengthen community. Following are just a few:

  • The Peter Kiewit Foundation makes grants to neighborhood associations on a grassroots level in Omaha, Neb., in order to promote safety, urban rejuvenation, citizen organization, and beautification. Further, these grants are usually made only after in-depth conversations with residents to determine their needs. They also provide new playgrounds throughout the rural regions of the state: 253 playgrounds at a cost of $1.85 million since 2000.
  • Recognizing that families are the heart of communities, The Duke Endowment is heavily involved in Nurse Family Partnership to help first-time low income mothers deliver full-term babies at healthy birth weights. For the past 30 years, this evidence-based program has helped improve prenatal care, reduce the rate of multiple pregnancies, improve school readiness among children, improve maternal employment, and reduce the incidence of child abuse. This national program is making a difference in communities across the country and is being supported wholeheartedly by private philanthropy.
  • The Jacobs Family Foundation founded the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI) out of belief that the creativity and innovation of residents can help them change their own neighborhoods. JCNI works in partnership with the Jacobs Family Foundation and residents of San Diego’s Diamond Neighborhoods to build a stronger community through entrepreneurial projects, hands-on learning relationships, and the creative investment of resources.
  • Kaiser Permanente invests its intellectual, technical, financial, and human assets to create health access and healthy environments, and to broadly share knowledge about health. Its philanthropic initiatives, ranging from community-based organizations to national campaigns like HBO’s The Weight of the Nation and EveryBody Walk!, model how Kaiser Permanente works through an expanding network of public and private partnerships. These unique investments contribute to Kaiser Permanente’s comprehensive approach to improving the health of communities across the country.

As one reads Schambra’s piece, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t understand philanthropy’s value as part of a global ecosystem for greater good or the role of communities that engage with philanthropy’s leaders to benefit citizens. And, unfortunately, he is not alone.

Ensuring that everyone understands philanthropy’s positive impact on society is critical to preserving and enhancing the sector’s ability to continue to effect positive change. We have an opportunity to increase the understanding of what philanthropy is and does. Our members are moving forward and making the world a better place—each and every day. Looking back, as Schambra has done in such a negative way, is hardly an accurate commentary on the productive and positive partnerships philanthropy has formed with American communities and its potential for our shared future.



  • Jeff


    For the Council on Foundations, eugenics is an “outdated and isolated example.” For the estimated 1,500 living victims of state-forced sterilization in North Carolina alone, I suspect the “outdated and isolated example” is more present. Forced sterilization of minorities, rape victims, and the “feeble minded” occurred in 32 different programs and affected tens of thousands of American citizens from roughly 1930 to the late 1970s.

    Many states have issued official apologies for these unconscionable acts against their own citizens. Why won’t the foundations involved in funding eugenics do the same?

    Jeffrey Cain
    Arthur N. Rupe Foundation
    Santa Barbara, CA

  • Tom King

    Mr. Schambra’s piece did not impugn all foundations. He was speaking primarily about the very big ones. There is good reason to. The Rockefeller sized foundations have a trickle-down influence on the smaller foundations which do address community needs. Everything these days needs to be a massive collaboration or part of a bigger community initiative in order to be considered for funding. A small nonprofit that needs a one time bit of help has to demonstrate that it fits some sort of larger national or regional strategy or many foundations won’t touch it. If a school needs a playground, you need to develop a memorandum of understanding with some Johnson & Johnson initiated “Exercise for Life” program. It can’t be just a playground.

    The extremely wealthy think big picture. That’s how they get, manage and keep their fortunes. If they are going to give back, therefore, most believe they should give back in a big way. To their credit, there are some large foundations who do understand that sometimes a playground is just a playground and they do support little things that fill only local needs. God bless the ones that do. With others, we grant writers don’t even bother them with for local projects. The mega-foundations just don’t do them unless it’s as a favor for a friend of a board member or something like that. Check their websites. They make it perfectly clear.that if you don’t fit a larger agenda initiated by the foundation itself, you’re not welcome to apply.

    They aren’t all like that, but the condition is spreading like a virus. Community-initiated projects are in trouble as a result. For a while there community-initiated projects were all the rage, but it seems lately, we’re going backwards toward the Foundation-initiated approach where you have to figure out what a foundation wants done and then you try to stuff your project into the prescribed matrix. For most of those kinds of village sized projects, I go to individuals, family foundations and communities foundations. What’s troubling is that more and more of them are moving towards big agenda giving so year by year we have fewer and fewer sources available to us.

    Just my observation from out here in the trenches.

    Tom King

  • Keenan Wellar

    I didn’t see Schambra’s piece as an “attack on philanthropy” but rather as shining a light on a trend whereby resources for philanthropic endeavours are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few, and their utilization less and less rooted in demonstrated community needs or best practices.

    I think this response – which criticizes Schambra for using limited examples to draw broad conclusions – suffers from the same. Of course there are examples of amazing donors and outcomes. I don’t think Schambra claimed otherwise. The Community Foundation here in Ottawa is also an amazing organization that I’ve been proud to partner with for 15 years.

    In my own little part of the world it does frustrate me no end when we struggle to overcome systemic barriers and assumed norms that serve to seperate and segregate people with intellectual disabilities from the rest of the community, while at the same time I see every day some sort of a grant being given out that serves to accomplish just the opposite!

    The funding of segregated arts, culture, recreation, education, vocation, etc. is a 30 year old concept that should now be as outdated as racial segregation – but time and time again these “special needs ballet” projects command grant funding – not only wasting precious financial resources on a wrong-headed project, but also helping to reduce the impact of the work of those who are trying to build an inclusive community.

    I hope saying that doesn.t means I am attacking philanthropy. Philanthropy is wonderful – provided it is informed and purposeful. Otherwise it can be wasteful as well as harmful. In other words, I don’t think we can say the mere act of giving out money is deserving of praise, and that philanthropists and social change agencies (and the communities where they operate) are best served by working together.

  • Keenan Wellar

    Well said Jeff. And even today I see foundation dollars are going to support practices that serve to diminish the value of people with disabilities. By calling attention to the atrocities of the past of which philanthropic dollars no doubt contributed, perhaps we can help promote an environment whereby the work of social change agencies who are on the ground and have done their homework are viewed as partners, not ignored or perhaps even viewed as adversaries.

  • Keenan Wellar

    I have noticed this as well Tom. There is a million dollar social media program going on right now where many of the proposed projects are working at cross-purposes, but the corporate sponsor wins either way with thousands of daily voters giving up their contact information and helping marketing the program. I have no problem with corporate participation in supporting community initiatives, but I see less and less interest in making sure that the investments MAKE SENSE and control has been vested with the sponsor to the detriment of positive community outcomes. This does seem to be infecting the charitable sector in a broad way, as you suggest. I hope it is a phase that will soon pass. I’d even prefer going back to the horribly complicated applications of the 1990s if it means there’s some more thought given to what type of projects should be undertaken and how best to go about it with the needs of the community being featured more strongly.

  • Tony Macklin

    I don’t necessarily agree with how Schambra was trying to make his point and I think Tom King’s comment is a good observation from the field. It would be even better to see real data – what percentage of foundation grants are actually tied to initiatives or top-down agendas and has that actually changed over time? How has the ratio changed over time given the explosion of donor-advised funds and family foundations over the past decades? Or, does the outsized visibility of the largest foundations just make this seem like an outsized problem?

    That said, I was more surprised the Council on Foundations thought the article warranted an official “from the top” response. Are we that defensive about organized philanthropy that the Council feels it has to respond to pundits’ pondering?

  • Dan

    Did you read the piece? He is specifically criticizing the very largest foundations, and praising locally-focused philanthropy. It seems your commentary is simply a reaction that flows through a talking point that is probably in your strategic plan “Ensuring that everyone understands philanthropy’s positive impact on society”. That’s great, but engage the piece on its own merits, rather than pretending that Schambra is attacking philanthropy and foundations as a whole. There are enormous differences between large and small foundations, community foundations and corporate foundations, etc. To pretend they all have the same interests and theories of change is absurd. And I, for one, think that ‘looking back”- particularly in a “negative way”- is one of the most instructive and important methods in critical inquiry. Schambra reminds us of a shameful episode in our nation’s history and offers an alternative path. While I do not agree with all his conclusions, he should be commended.

  • BethB

    Silly me. I have always operated under the assumption that there was a difference between large national foundations and smaller “community’ type foundations, each serving different but equally important purposes. I would suggest we all look at the big picture and not one, albeit horrendous example, to judge national foundations, but I am afraid I might be accused of being elitist.

  • Tidy Sum

    Ol’ Bill has been grinding this ol battle axe to a nub over the years. It like all he has now is a handle to keep wacking away.

    It took me six times to figure out what the hell he was getting at but after I did a little weeding, a sip of Seagrams VO, and a quick stepping aside of his stupifyingly bizzare and uncharacteristically windy example, I find myself agreeing with his broad strokes of his lament.

    Mr. King is right in saying that the argument does not bash all foundations. The title, as wonderfully wackily Shambraian as it is, was probably designed to get our goats and get us to read the plodding diatribe.

    It sure worked on me. (I was about to follow the Gangnam Style Tweet) But it also spun the less discerning readers into thinking he was lambasting everyone. We should all take a big NPQ Chill Pill and read his stuff. He is a sharp critic that is well aware of both the good of philanthropy and its many foibles. I don’t always agree with his notions but I think he has a way better understanding of the so-called philanthropic ecosystems (sheesh!) than most of the folks whose goat he got.