Editors’ note: The Wallace Foundation of New York, a practitioner of evidence-based philanthropy, recently invited Bill Schambra, of the Hudson Institute, to challenge its own practices. Below are Schambra’s remarks to the Wallace Foundation on January 12, 2012, which reflect the fact that he is not a big fan of philanthropy’s overdesigning, overly rational interventions for communities. Wallace president Will Miller’s response follows.
POINT / Counterpoint: Bill Schambra Speaks
You’ve taken a step this evening—having a notorious critic of one of your core values appear before you to present his case—that is extraordinarily rare in philanthropy, and you’re to be commended for that.
My meager commendation, you may find, is your only reward for having me here this evening, but I hope that’s not the case.
I take my bearings this evening from a quote from your Chairman’s Letter from 2004. As she put it, “The [Wallace] Foundation came to see its key resource as knowledge rather than dollars. Developing and sharing effective ideas and practices in our chosen fields is our most important stock in trade—far more than just giving away money.”
This desire to be loved for your mind rather than just your money is, in fact, the central characteristic of modern American institutional philanthropy, beginning with the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage foundations over a century ago.
Its distinctive characteristic would be to harness the new physical and social sciences to get to the root causes of problems, as opposed to decrepit, feeble charity, which merely puts Band-Aids on problems.
This focus on the development and dispersion of knowledge was evident in their grantmaking.
It focused on building up the modern research university, with its emphasis on the physical and social sciences; on the modernization of professions like medicine, public health, and social work, through the introduction of science into their work and building codes of professional conduct based on it; and on constructing new institutions like think tanks and civic research bureaus, to begin to reshape public policy on the basis of science.
It’s difficult to overstate the role that measurement was to play in philanthropy’s plans for America. Statistics, numbers, metrics were to be gathered en masse as the best way to probe social problems to their roots.
The virtue of numbers is that they seem to be unassailably objective, neutral, nonpartisan. Figures don’t lie, they believed, only later coming to realize that liars sure can figure.
Objective, nonpartisan numbers provided the political leaders of the time—the Progressives, especially—with an ideal way to dampen the raging political conflicts of the early twentieth century.
The politics of the day seemed to be hopelessly distorted by the narrow, parochial claims of political factions or by dangerously divisive and seemingly irreconcilable ideologies.
But everyone, they believed, could rally around measurements, which were to be gathered without regard to partisan preference, and which transcended interests and ideologies, pointing toward solutions that were indisputably in the objective public interest.
As the prominent Progressive (and founder of the New Republic) Herbert Croly put it, in modern, complex society, the “cohesive element” would be “the completest social record,” which could be assembled only by social science experts “using social knowledge in the interest of valid social pur