Escaping Philanthropy’s House of Mirrors: Foundations and Engagement

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Editors’ Note: From a speech given in October by Bill Schambra to the Kettering Foundation.



It’s a great pleasure to be here, where I don’t need to say so much that typically needs to be said about the problems that philanthropy all too often creates for civic renewal. Given the work that Kettering and its allies have done over the years, I don’t need to tell you that America’s largest foundations were founded upon the notion—a notion that so many of them propagate to this day—that the problems of the modern age are to be solved by technological “interventions,” applied to listless and backward citizens by experts armed with professional credentials in the new sciences of the 20th century, both natural and social.

don’t need to describe how this point of view affected American democracy—a broken system, according to our first philanthropists, utterly incapable of dealing with modern problems because it was hopelessly divided, decentralized, and gridlocked, fragmented into countless partial, parochial communities, dominated by benighted moral and religious prejudices. Such a democracy was manifestly unable to take the more comprehensive, national view the new century’s problems demanded—a view available only to an efficient, centralized, rational administration that would transcend partisanship and parochialism in the name of an objectively realized, statistically grounded national interest.

don’t have to say these things because many of you here today have yourselves amply documented the dangerously undemocratic proclivities of such a modern, rationalistic view. So what do I have to say to such a congenial audience, on one of the very few occasions I have one?

Well, it’s my self-assigned role in life to say things to foundations, even friendly foundations, that they don’t necessarily want to hear. That’s because so few people are willing or able to do so, and when even when they take that risk, there’s almost zero chance the foundation will hear it, much less heed it. For the problem with foundations is that they are almost infinitely capable of self-deception. They live in a house of mirrors. There’s almost no way for the reality out there to break in—to interrupt philanthropy’s self-absorbed interior monologue.

Foundations are, of course, completely insulated from the unpleasant impingements that reality forces upon all other institutions. After all, foundations don’t need to raise money, sell a product, or win an election. When they nonetheless strive to understand the real world—which they often do, because they have every intention of making it over in their own likeness—they resort to crude empirical instruments that warp and distort more than they measure.

Finally, and most self-deceptively, foundations suffer from a severe and chronic case of “observer-expectancy effect.” No matter how effusively they profess to “be here today” only to learn, to partner, to convene, to facilitate—that is, not to dispense grants—all anyone sees when they enter the room is the cash bulging from their pockets. Suddenly and magically, reality assumes an appearance entirely congenial to the thoughts, hopes, and plans of the program officer—the preconceived model of reality she carries in the back of her head.

For instance, many foundations today insist that they’re by no means as heavy-handed, elitist, and technocratic as I’ve just described them, because they’ve learned that none of their projects will succeed in the real world without so-called “community buy-in” or public support. For this audience, I don’t have to point out the self-deception involved in this view. All too often “community buy-in” is, for philanthropists, a mirage readily conjured by the appearance of money on the scene. Or it’s just another technical problem to be solved by community-relations experts skilled in the subtle sciences of manipulation and consensus-creation.

Kettering and its friends, by contrast, are committed to a much deeper and richer understanding of the relationship of philanthropy to democracy; one entirely cognizant of such false starts and dead ends; one that seeks to use charitable dollars to cultivate deliberative, democratic engagement or community democracy. And yet, perhaps, even here lurks the threat of philanthropic self-deception.

The possibly unwelcome advice I bring to an otherwise congenial audience is this: you must be acutely aware of the limits, as well as the potency, of the model of democratic deliberation that you carry in the backs of your heads. For it may lead you to appreciate and support only forms of deliberation that occur quite often in the reality in here, in conference rooms like this one, but far more rarely in the reality out there, in everyday American communities.

Take the vision of “community democracy,” as defined by Peter Pennekamp and Anne Focke in Kettering’s monograph, “Philanthropy and the Regeneration of Community Democracy.” It is immensely appealing and alluring. But it is also quite partial and parochial in its own way. After all, it involves a community caught up in the “timber wars” of Northern California, where the political interests involved are fully mobilized and very well defined. Those interests reflect significant, well-articulated ideological positions on some of the most important and engaging cultural, economic, and environmental issues of the day.

In this politically super-charged setting, the Humboldt Area Foundation decides, not unreasonably, that its best contribution would be to provide a neutral, open-ended forum where all the interests can come together and work toward consensus—a genuine consensus, not the kind concocted by PR experts. It even undertakes to address the “power critique” often directed at deliberative democracy by guaranteeing seats and voices for groups that are all too often excluded otherwise from such forums.

Now, compared to the manifestly undemocratic procedures of so many other foundations, this is very good work indeed. But again, let me alert you to the dangers of self-deception. For all the tensions and dangers involved in the “timber wars,” this is a kind of dispute fully congenial to folks like you and me: folks who make our living engaged in what we tell ourselves are deep and thoughtful conversations about the most important cultural, economic, and environmental issues of the day.

The way the foundation dealt with the problem—by bringing everyone together around the conference room table and having everyone “dialogue,” as they say, “in search of ways to reduce conflict and build areas of agreement”—is again a mode of operation with which you and I are very comfortable, especially if followed by a reception featuring a nice dry local Chardonnay and some artisanal cheese.

For all the risk and courage involved in what the foundation did, I would venture to say that for those immediately involved, it must have been a blast! As a regular panel organizer in Washington, D.C., Lord knows I would love to be the official convener of a such a high-stakes, high-level deliberation, with no time limits, no guidelines, no deliverables…just highly articulate, admirably passionate, politically engaged spokespeople representing the most important points of view of the day, engaged in a rich and thoroughgoing dialogue, gradually working their way to consensus.

Now, I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with this understanding of what a foundation should do with regard to democratic engagement. I’m just saying it’s a very limited and parochial view, one that fits a little too neatly with the kind of conversations you and I and our fellow New Class professionals tend to relish in our conference rooms and seminars. It’s every bit as much an artifact of our class interest as the narrow technocratic approaches preferred by an earlier class of philanthropic professionals. And it must be noted that this model is built on circumstances that aren’t otherwise to be found that often.

The problem faced by Humboldt was, if anything, an excess of political intensity, interest, and engagement, and the trick was to harness all that energy to worthwhile purposes. Most foundations, most of the time, maintain that the problem they face is a severe deficiency, rather than an excess, of political energy.

Now, they say they face such a deficiency. But here again, this may not be true in the real world—a world they cannot see accurately because they carry in their heads an implicit and largely unconscious understanding of what political energy looks like. When it comes in the exuberant form of timber wars, no problem. But what about other, more subtle, less dramatic forms?

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on philanthropy and the problems faced by the city of Detroit. There, as we all know, thousands of acres of land are now bereft of inhabitants, much less political energy. But consider one group I’ve been reading about, the East Side Riders. Founded by Wayne and Mike Neeley in one of those seemingly desolate neighborhoods, it’s a club devoted to customizing its bicycles.

As Detroit Free Press reporter John Carlisle describes its product, “long, shiny handlebars rise above shoulder height…fenders feature fine detailing and lettering with razor-sharp edges…there are trinkets in the spokes and decals on the frame.” As the Neeleys gathered a cadre of adults with bikes like these, the kids in the neighborhood began showing up, seeking help in repairing and adorning their bikes.

As Carlisle notes, “In a place where most kids grow up without their dads at home, a yard full of adult men making cool things is a draw for young boys with few role models.” Pretty soon, the club’s headquarters became a beehive of neighborhood activity, going on organized rides downtown, cleaning up the parks they use, acting as couriers for neighborhood alerts.

Carlisle again: “When the area declines, when families fall apart or were never families in the first place, when the city stops fixing the lights or sending the police, sometimes a handful of people will step up to restore a sense of order in little ways here and there that add up to a community.”

Here’s the challenge for a foundation interested in cultivating democratic engagement: However difficult to discern, the East Side Riders—stepping up to restore a sense of order in their desolate neighborhood—are precisely an expression of democratic engagement. The Riders may have assembled initially and privately to gussy up their own bikes, but once those glittering objects began drawing in the neighboring kids, the Riders began to assume a public if informal responsibility for them. However oblique, however faint, however unfamiliar to us, this is a kind of democratic engagement far more likely to be found in our low-income communities than high-flown dialogues about the trade-off between economic prosperity and environmental preservation.

And it would be entirely familiar to Alexis de Tocqueville, who taught us that democratic politics in modern times would not be kept aloft by grand philosophical debates. Rather, it would emerge imperceptibly from the intersection between lowly, immediate self-interest and some larger but still humble and concrete public interest—say, the intersection between adorning your own bike and becoming an adult mentor for the neighborhood’s kids.

For all the reasons you know so well, the reasons I didn’t have to address initially because you are all familiar with the anti-democratic bias of top-down technocratic philanthropy, the East Side Riders, whose main claim to expertise is to have survived the same mean streets down which now ride the kids over whom they watch, are not likely any time soon to become a foundation favorite. (Although it must be said that the Knight Foundation recently announced a $10,000 grant for them—not as an exemplar of community democracy, but rather as an arts project.)

For the handful of foundations with an interest in cultivating democratic engagement, though, groups like the East Side Riders pose a more subtle challenge. If those foundations are to reserve their enthusiasm for engagement in politically supercharged events like the timber wars, however perfectly such disputes fit a rigorous model of community democracy, they’re in for some long, dry spells. Or they’re likely to indulge in some self-deceptive reshaping of democratic reality into forms that are more familiar, but ultimately false.

Like the anti-democratic, pro-technocratic foundations, the pro-democratic, anti-technocratic community-building foundations are going to have to face up to the biases they harbor, the self-deception they bring to their work. The model of democratic engagement they have lodged in the recesses of their skulls may well prevent them from seeing concrete examples of democratic engagement right before their eyes.