The Passing of Amy Kass, Teacher and Scholar

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Amy-Kass

Image Credit: Hudson Institute

August 20, 2015; Hudson Institute

Amy Kass passed away last week. She was an associate of the Hudson Institute, whose gifted director for philanthropy and civic renewal, Bill Schambra, penned an eloquent and entirely appropriate tribute to this wonderful woman.

Bill mentioned Amy’s amazing facilitation of some of the Bradley Symposia, where she’d keep panels of strong-willed and sometimes self-absorbed conservative intellectuals—often very large one panels—focused on topics with strong implications for nonprofits and foundations. Moreover, the annual group discussion of Christmas stories she convened each year at Hudson will simply never be matched.

Inexplicably, Amy got this author to contribute an essay on philanthropy and social justice to her 2008 anthology, Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists—a great honor, given the array of contributions to that volume. Schambra explained best what made Amy Kass so valued by the Hudson Institute and such a moving presence for all of us who had the pleasure of interacting with her:

Amy understood that if we seek to become or to make better human beings, citizens, or charitable givers, more than cultivation of the mind is required. That work involves an engagement of the heart, as well—something best achieved not through the typical think tank output of policy analysis or political commentary, but through individual and collaborative contemplation of stories: the most thoughtful and artfully conceived stories our fellow men and women have produced as they struggle for purpose and improvement amidst civic turmoil, moral confusion, or spiritual crisis.

For the purposes of Nonprofit Quarterly, the best tribute to Amy Kass might be to look at some of the issues and themes she hoped her Giving Well, Doing Good anthology would address:

What should today’s philanthropy aim to do? Should its energies be directed mainly to securing the floor—removing obstacles such as poverty and disease, somatic and psychic—or toward lifting the ceiling—promoting excellences such as learning and the fine arts? Should the major targets today be equality and social justice? Freedom and self-governance? Moral and spiritual renewal? Something else?

If philanthropic practice is to become more democratic, as well as more effective and more accountable, the crucial elements of the philanthropic exchange require clarification. What is the meaning of a grant? How is it similar to or different from a gift? From a contract? What sorts of relationships and obligations does a grant imply for givers and receivers? How should grant- or gift-making decisions be rendered?

The difficulty of assessment is more than methodological. For it is one thing to gauge whether grant recipients are performing the particular activities that they said they would; or whether they are proceeding according to their proposed plan; or whether the available resources are being effectively managed; or even whether recipients have delivered the promised concrete results. It is quite another, and more difficult, thing to discern what sort of an impact a grant really has, whether it has made a difference for good, and if so, how, where, when, and to whom? What is effective philanthropy? How should we judge its success? What attitudes, dispositions, or measures are conducive to effective philanthropy?

Amy Kass found her answers, or the texts that would help stimulate thinking toward answers, in many arenas, and enthrallingly to us, in literature. In Giving Well, Doing Good, she offered readings from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leo Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, E.M. Forster, Anton Chekhov, and Sholom Aleichem, among others, as sources of insight toward answering these and other questions. As Schambra wrote, “Amy Kass taught us to be better people, better citizens, in a better nation.” She also taught us how to be more inclusive, tolerant, civil, and thoughtful about the work of charity and philanthropy. Let’s hope we don’t forget.—Rick Cohen