Reclaiming the Moral Life of Philanthropy

Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, discussed his concerns about a growing need for a stronger moral framework for philanthropy at the Starr Forum at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Forty-five years ago, a young aide named Bill Moyers sat in the Oval Office talking with his boss, the President of the United States.  The subject was a pending bill that would provide retroactive Social Security payments.  According to the since-released White House tapes, Moyers argued for the retroactivity clause on the basis that it would boost the economy.  Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) was already convinced, but not on those grounds.  Wrapping it together with the recent landmark Medicare legislation, the President told Moyers:


“My reason though is not because of the economy. . . . my reason would be the same as I agreed to go $400 million on health. I’ve never seen an anti-trust suit lie against an old-age pensioner for monopoly or concentration of power or closely-held wealth. I’ve never seen it apply it to the average worker. And I’ve never seen one have too much health benefits. So when they come in to me and say we’ve got to have $400 million more so we can take care of some doctors’ bills, I’m for it on health. I’m pretty much for it on education. I’m for it anywhere it’s practicable. . . . My inclination would be . . . that it ought to be retroactive as far back as you can get . . . because none of them ever get enough.  That they are entitled to it.  That’s an obligation of ours. . . . We do know that it affects the economy. . . . it helps us in that respect. But that’s not the basis to go to the Hill, or the justification. We’ve just got to say that by God you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled to it and we promised it to her.”

I can’t do justice to LBJ’s voice, of course, despite having lived in Texas for four years.  For anyone who hasn’t listened to them, I highly recommend spending a few hours with the LBJ tapes.  But this exchange, which Bill Moyers recently sent to me, is interesting in a number of ways, not least for its role reversals.  Moyers, who makes a practical political argument to LBJ, has since become a moral clarion; and LBJ, regarded during his lifetime as a wheeler-dealer, comes off as a pure humanitarian. He wants to tap the Treasury for retroactive payments because it’s the right thing to do, simple as that.

Like all human beings, both of the men on the tape are more complex than this brief conversation reveals.  But it sparked in me a longing for more moral clarity in our public discourse, for an effort to transcend the relentlessness of metrics and the calculus of polls and focus groups.  So when M.I.T. invited me to speak here on some topic pertaining to philanthropy, I thought I would use that as a starting point.  The talk has a grandiose title, but I promise not to live up to it.  That is, I will try not to overstate my concerns, as I don’t believe philanthropy is morally bankrupt, in deep crisis, or even very different from what it has been for decades, as I learned over the summer re-reading the essays and speeches of the great Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, probably the strongest voice for social justice ever to emerge in my field.

Before sharing my thoughts on these matters, let me offer a few caveats.  I use “philanthropy” in the broadest sense of the term, covering efforts to increase the wellbeing of mankind that don’t stem from government or business. I will touch on the political world and some other spheres and sectors, but since I have laboured 15 years in the vineyards of large private foundations, I cannot escape the responsibility of focusing much of my attention there.  And though I have worked for at least half of my career in global institutions, the observations I make today will focus on the United States, whatever applicability they may or may not have for Britain or South Africa or Brazil.

I have no manifesto and offer no magic bullet. What I do have is a disquiet about the way we in the foundation world, along with the organisations we support and the infrastructure many of us have helped to build, have mirrored trends in the political world to talk about what we do and why we are doing it in ways that have strayed too far from first principles.  We have become more about the fix, the intervention – to use a horribly dominant word in the field that calls to mind invading armies – than about the reasons for doing or caring about it.   In marching under the flag of what works, and in particular what can be proven or demonstrated through the rigours of evidence, we risk straying too far from what is right.  I think it is time to strike a better balance.

Rigour and moral clarity are not in any essential tension.  Indeed, the first can serve the second, and often must.  We’ve had far too much from the political right in the last few decades of morally or even religiously driven initiatives, like abstinence-only education, that persist and thrive despite their failure and the “don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts” attitude of their advocates.  I’m not proposing that those of us who are more progressive, whose foundations are concerned with social justice, equity, human rights and the like abandon our approach to evaluation or ape the know-nothing tendencies of our colleagues on the right.  But I do think we have something to learn from them, and I want to talk about why today.

I’ll try to illustrate my concerns by spending some time looking at the way this plays out in several issues or causes, some of which I have been active in, some less so.  It might be best to start with a personal story that contains some public lessons.

Back in the mid-1980s, though from Rhode Island, I found myself the executive director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has ranches bigger than the little state just south of here.  We dealt with a lot of tough issues in a tough climate, even some years before the state’s politics became dominated by the hard right.  Among the toughest of these issues was crime and punishment.  When I arrived in Texas in 1984, the state had just resumed executions after a moratorium of some years, and as the switch was thrown with sickening frequency in the death chamber at the state prison in Huntsville, the legislature kept reacting to appalling crime stories by jacking up the length of sentences and subjecting an ever-wider array of offences to the death penalty. The outnumbered forces for human rights in the justice system – which beyond the ACLU included some churches, a grassroots group of prisoners’ families, and, for self-interested reasons, the criminal defence bar – laboured mightily in a Sisyphean task.

To the legislators I was trying to convince, and the public they were trying to appease, the traditional ACLU rights-talk about the Constitution and its transcendant values was starry-eyed idealism at best, dangerous radicalism at worst. As long as the courts, and a handful of courageous judges, were available to us, we could force the state toward at least minimal standards of humane treatment. But we were having very little impact on the legislature and the public, so at one point I decided to take a different tack.

I threw out our membership brochure and replaced it with one claiming we were the most conservative organisation in Texas, since we were the ones trying to protect a 200-year-old document.  I created, designed and wrote a pamphlet called “Tough Talk About Crime from the Texas Civil Liberties Union,” and started to argue the issues in more pragmatic, practical terms.  The state simply couldn’t afford to lock so many people up – it wasn’t cost-effective.  Stripping prisons of educational and training programmes was counter-productive, since inmates would get out eventually with no skills or readiness to earn an honest living. They’d be forced back into crime.

These are sound and solid arguments, and they are true to this day, when the Texas Department of Corrections houses four times as many prisoners as it did on the day I left the state.  But the very grimness of that statistic illustrates the danger of relying too much on a pragmatic argument.  Texas released a number of non-violent offenders when it had a budget crunch in the mid-80s, but when it was flush again – and spurred by the development of a private prison industry that had financial incentives to lock more people up – it built the inmate population right back up again.  Our arguments prevailed in a tough fiscal climate, but they disappeared when the state’s coffers filled up.  We had framed them in almost completely pragmatic terms, failing to ground them in first principles or build a real constituency for reform based on those principles.

Let me move on to the most recent campaign in which I have been involved, something fresh in all our minds, health care.

The foundation I lead, The Atlantic Philanthropies, was the largest funder of Health Care for America Now, a major national coalition that worked for two years to achieve the comprehensive health-care reform signed into law by President Obama in March 2010.  We’re proud of it, and while the law is not perfect, it is the most significant advance for the social safety net in America – the interrupted work of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon Johnson – in over 40 years. And yet the new law made a tortuous route through a Congress of heavy majorities of the President’s own party, and has to date, despite the end of exclusion from coverage for those with pre-existing conditions and a host of other human benefits, yielded virtually no political benefits, only costs, to its advocates, from the President on down.

This is not the place for an exhaustive discussion of health care or any other issue I will touch on today.  But if even its advocates and beneficiaries are uncertain about this piece of landmark legislation, some of the reason may be found in the yearlong debate prior to its passage.  I think the President deserves enormous credit for taking on this battle – which a succession of chief executives from Theodore Roosevelt on tried and failed – and sticking with it to the end despite counsels of caution.   But I also think he erred – with some exceptions like his September 2009 address to Congress, invoking Ted Kennedy just a few weeks after the Senator’s death, and his periodic recollections of his mother’s final illness – in framing the health care campaign largely around cost, not morality and justice.

Of course, every argument about the unsustainable price tag of escalating health expenses and insurance rates, of the cost to taxpayers of uncompensated care, of the burden on business and the like – all of these are true, important, and not trivial in reaching citizens and legislators sceptical of government’s reach, for whom those might be leading considerations.  But the town meeting protesters, who grew into the Tea Party, had and have a ferocious passion about the issue for which there was no match on our side, given the lack of a sustained appeal to morality, the failure to state clearly and repeatedly the injustice of consigning so many working Americans to illness, suffering and early death because they lack money.

Another issue I follow closely is immigration reform, a second one in which Atlantic has been a key funder.  Here, too, is a mismatch between the scope of the injustice and many of the principal arguments that are meant to spur action.  Millions of human beings, driven to flee here or remain here by economic desperation, live in the shadows, stateless workers without whom big sectors of the economy would collapse, but who have no rights or voice in the polity that surrounds them.  Homes and factories are raided, children and families deported, and discrimination and police abuse virtually invited by laws like Arizona’s recent SB 1070.  This is a crisis that should shock the conscience of every person.

And yet, weirdly, the discussion of immigration is framed almost entirely in problem-solving terms – let’s fix this broken system.  The system is broken, of course, but again, technocracy is no match for the virulent passion of the other side, who like the Tea Party – which has much convergence with the nativist movement — are propelled not just by economic anxiety but by racially-tinged discomfort with a country that is increasingly more diverse, from the classroom to the supermarket to the White House.

In an article in The Nation last month, Greg Grandin offered nine reasons Democrats should embrace immigration reform this year, among them that it would slow the inclusion of Latino evangelicals into the religious right, it would split the conservative coalition, dilute the power of the Florida Cubans, and so on.  Not until the last did he argue “it is the right thing morally to do” because of “10 million vulnerable residents who are denied basic human rights and hunted by random raids, their families split apart.”  Similarly, a set of talking points on Arizona’s SB 1070 issued last month by six progressive advocacy groups argues, among other things, that they cost localities too much money from enforcement and boycott losses, but says nothing about the human cost.

You might counter these reflections by arguing that a problem-solving approach to matters like health care and immigration is the best one because most people don’t live in an ideological space.  They’re sick of ideologues and moralists, the kind of people who lead crusades, whether into Iraq or our bedrooms, and hungry for practical solutions to the nation’s problems.  We’ll get a sense of just how sick people are on November 2, and I’ll have more to say about these points before I close today, but I want to make clear at my midpoint here that I don’t see this as a left-right issue.  Immigration, criminal justice, the environment – none of these sort neatly into those kinds of political boxes.  Indeed, some of the most striking passion and energy to be seen today on those matters, and on many the reason we have hope at all, is emerging from evangelical Christians more comfortable traditionally on the political right but moved to action by their belief in the power of redemption or the need to be careful stewards of God’s earth.

My own professional life has not focused on the environment, but I follow the green movement and know that there has been a more robust debate in those precincts about the concerns I have raised. In a conversation on National Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith,” Bill McKibben put it starkly:

“There’s an inverse, almost linear relationship between how much of the problem you caused and how quickly you’re feeling the effects. I can remember going to the hospital in Dhaka and looking at this huge ward full of beds … and people in every one of them just shivering away. And I remember thinking, ‘God, is this unfair. These people have done literally nothing to cause this.’ When the UN tries to measure how much carbon each nation admits, you can’t even really get a number for the 140 million people in Bangladesh. It’s just like a rounding error in the whole calculation. You know, the 4 per cent of us in this country produce 25 per cent of the world’s CO2. It’s not perfect epidemiology, but the moral math works for me. If there are 100 beds in that hospital, 25 of them are on us.”

Writing in the New York Times in July on the failure of climate change legislation, Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund offered four reasons for its demise, but the first was the reluctance of the Obama Administration and advocates in Congress to argue it in moral terms:

“Despite climate change being the greatest challenge of our time, with millions of people facing inundation, starvation and conflicts over scarce resources, the White House directed advocates not to discuss it. At a meeting in April 2009 led by Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, administration message mavens told climate bill advocates that, given the polling, they should avoid talking about climate change and focus on green jobs and energy independence.

“Had Lyndon Johnson likewise relied on polling, he would have told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to talk only about the expanded industry and jobs that Southerners would realise after passage of a federal civil rights act. I could imagine Dr. King’s response.

“The urge to avoid the topic of climate change is not new. While Bill Clinton and Al Gore have done noble work on climate since leaving office, when they had the presidential megaphone they did little to educate the public about the wolf at our door. President Obama has followed suit, and our national comprehension of climate change continues to stagnate. Virtually the only public officials working to shape opinion on this over the past two years have been those committed to misrepresenting the science.”

Given Lee Wasserman’s apt critique and the stalled state of legislation in any way commensurate with the crisis of the planet, it’s evident that the environmental movement has made little progress in dealing with the challenges issued by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their landmark 2004 paper, “The Death of Environmentalism.”   In it, the two authors charge that:


“…not one of America’s environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards — proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem.”


They went on:

“…the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behaviour of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed ‘thing’ – ‘the environment’ – than advancing the world view articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.’  Consider what would happen if we identified the obstacles as [among other things] our failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision.…our inability to craft legislative proposals that shape the debate around core American values … old assumptions about what the problem is and what it isn’t…. The point here is not just that global warming has many causes but also that the solutions we dream up depend on how we structure the problem.”


I quote Shellenberger and Nordhaus at length not only because they say with much more authority than I can what failures of imagination and vision have led to the environmental stalemate we have today, but because their penetrating analysis is relevant to every social movement I know well, and a good deal of it was aimed at the community of funders whose grants fuel the principal environmental organisations.

To this point, I have said little about how foundations themselves contribute to the state of affairs I have described, but of course they have a lot of influence and impact on how issues and campaigns are framed.  To begin with, most of them describe their aims in problem-solving terms, and align their grantmaking accordingly.

A look at the mission statements of a number of foundations confirms this.  They “[draw] on the best ideas and cutting edge strategies that draw strength from keep knowledge and scholarship,”  “[address] issues” and use “the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems.”  Some state their goals in loftier terms, like building “vibrant and tolerant democracies” or “a more just, verdant and peaceful world,”  but even those relatively few that are comfortable supporting public policy advocacy tend not to talk about it, or make any effort to knit the disparate issues and problems they deal with into a larger frame.

Moreover, the programmes and strategies of many foundations are increasingly in sway to the modern arts of public opinion research such as focus groups and polling.  I’ve relied on these tools myself over the years, and they have a strong place in any social change effort. We’re often told that opinion research is not meant to tell you what to think, or even what the market will bear, but how to best frame arguments to reach the public where they are, not where you hope they will be.  In this sense, polling is a close cousin of other scientific or pseudo-scientific approaches to philanthropy. But again, if it is not very closely hinged to first principles, to fundamental values, it cannot be a tool for meaningful change.

Both at Atlantic and in my previous job at the Open Society Institute, I’ve been told by pollsters that the best way to get public and legislative approval of progressive measures on prisoner re-entry or immigration reform is to cast it in punitive terms.  If you tell people that you’re going to be tough on those lazy prisoners by forcing them to get a G.E.D., you can tilt toward a majority favouring prison education programmes decimated during the last 20 years.  If you tell people that you’re going to make undocumented immigrants become citizens, they stand up and cheer.  Forget that most prisoners are desperate to make something better of themselves, and most immigrants eager to take their place as citizens.  If you disguise humane policies in a harsh coating, you might be able to get them through.

This may work – though I think there is little evidence it has so far – but what is the cost of that bargain?  I fear it is the acceptance of pernicious stereotypes and the perpetuation of demonising myths that will inevitably come back to haunt us and cause another round of human misery.  Look more closely at some recent polling, like that done for the American Civil Liberties Union in the years since the September 11 attacks, and you will find some support for grounding policies and arguments in a deeper moral framework.  The ACLU has made, and still makes, all the subsidiary arguments against, for instance, torture:  it almost never works in obtaining critical, life-saving information, virtually all members of the military brass oppose it as counterproductive, and so on.  But for the participants in their focus groups the most powerful argument was not utilitarian, it went to the core of their identity as Americans:  this is not who we are.

Foundations have also eroded what moral authority they have by an excessive focus on their own self-interest. Paul Ylvisaker wrote in 1976, at an international conference on opportunities for philanthropy in Bellagio, Italy – why can’t I get those kind of gigs? – that “Philanthropy [must] move out of fixed and safe positions into more independent, flexible and far more exposed stances between the contradictory forces that are generating tension, and without the resolving action of some agent such as philanthropy, will otherwise tear nations and neighbourhoods apart.”

And yet if you look for foundations in the public sphere today, you too often find them still entrenched in those fixed and safe positions.  When they speak out, it is often to preserve their tax exemptions and protect their payout rates, remaining bystanders in larger policy debates that have profound impact on the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups they purport to serve. During the Bush years, when tax cuts redistributed wealth upwards to the already rich, coupled with an illicit war with staggering costs in blood and money, it was hard to find a voice in American philanthropy raised in protest. And yet there is no question that those most in need of philanthropy – the poor, the sick, minorities, women, the old – bore the brunt of those costs.

In the early months of the Obama Administration, many in big philanthropy opposed the President’s proposal, part of his plan for financing health care, to cap charitable contribution deductions at the level of the Reagan years.  To argue against a critical funding mechanism for something as fundamental as health care seems to me to amount to asserting that democratically determined public needs, particularly for the most marginalised, should be trumped by an interest in having wealthy people keep more control of how they direct their funds.

In recent years, a number of thoughtful and committed foundations have formed what might be called an effectiveness movement in philanthropy, behind the sensible idea that good intentions are not enough.   Sean Stannard-Stockton captured this trend in a post this spring, “The Rise of Evidence-Based Grantmaking,” on the Tactical Philanthropy blog:


“We are in the midst of a revolution in philanthropy. While our field might not be practicing the equivalent of doctors bleeding their patients using leeches, philanthropy clearly acts very regularly without any real evidence that our actions will make a difference. However, the rise of evidence-based grantmaking is real. It might take a few decades to play out. But that’s just how real change happens.”


My own foundation in recent years has been part of this movement, helping to create organisations like Bridgespan and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to aid nonprofits and grantmakers in getting smarter about setting benchmarks and assessing impact.  But at times it seems to me as if this movement has strayed too far from why anyone should be concerned about effectiveness at all, from passion about the deep and tenacious societal inequities that move anyone to philanthropy in the first place.

Peter Karoff, the founder of The Philanthropic Initiative, in a talk on the moral dimensions of philanthropy in, of all places the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, a little over a month ago – again, why don’t I get those kind of gigs? – noted that “today’s donors …. have more focus and demand measurable results. Donors want to not only feel good about their philanthropy, they want proof they have made a difference.”  But he went on to express some:


“…cautions … about high-impact strategic philanthropy. One concern is that donors can be too controlling. There is also a concern that over-reliance on data and measurable results makes donors less likely to take actions that are hard to measure, and thus, more risk adverse.

“When we get caught up in too much process, it is easy to lose sight of the moral questions – Who to serve and who not to serve?  How to stand up and be counted when it is important to do so? When relevance becomes a servant to rigour, we lose our way.”


The effectiveness movement is now finding, I believe, that there is no real constituency for effectiveness as such, and watching the recent travails of the Obama Administration’s Fund for Social Innovation, so closely linked to this movement, it is possible to see why, because it is values that move people to enthusiasm and action, not more sterile concepts of metrics and results.  I was approached a few years back by a leader in the venture philanthropy field, riding high in those days before the Lehman Brothers collapse, a smart and well-intentioned person who was seeking Atlantic’s investment in his core operations, so that he could use the funds raised from hedge fund billionaires to support “innovation” in schooling for poor kids.  I tried to get some sense of what he and his colleagues believed were the elements of success in improving performance in school, what in effect his theory of change might be, but he had little to say except that they were looking for “proven programmes.”

By all means, let’s subject reforms to analysis, testing and evaluation – if what you are doing to make children’s lives better makes them worse, it’s time to stop.  But at the same time what you do has to flow from things you believe about the world, taking note of the roles of class and race, the power dynamics between adults and children, parents and schools, communities and political actors.  Is participation an important value in schools, the key building blocks of democracy?  Do we value creative thinking, dissent and experimentation?  I think so.  Others are bound to disagree.  But if these questions aren’t explicit, if the answers to them don’t inform our proposals for school reform, how can we possibly know whether we are on a path to building the world we want to live in?

Let me move to a close where I began, in the larger sphere of politics and policy, the stage on which all other institutions act their parts.  Lyndon Johnson, the passionate advocate of my opening lines, is not generally viewed as an inspirational President, while Barack Obama was widely seen as perhaps the most charismatic and eloquent candidate ever to run for the office.  Yet while President Johnson was capable of moments of great emotional resonance, as in his “We Shall Overcome” address to Congress, when he said, “we will not accept the peace of stifled rights or the order imposed by fear.”  While in office, despite some fine moments of the stirring oratory of which he is so capable, President Obama seems to have morphed into a policy wonk.  I say this not to judge – I am in fact an admirer of both of these quite different leaders – but to note the change in the times and the tone.

The 1960s was the last great period of progressive social advance in the United States.  From Nixon on, all Presidents, Democrats as well as Republicans, have been playing on the same field, one whose borders have been set by the political right. In this often fearful (think Nixon and the southern strategy on race and crime, Bush and Cheney after September 11) and occasionally hopeful (think Reagan on morning in America and the City on a Hill)  context, Republicans get to speak in grand moral terms about freedom; and Democrats get to be problem-solvers, all the while looking over their shoulder at ferocious critics who have no compunctions about questioning their patriotism, morality and commitment to security and safety abroad and at home.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, and you could substitute poles like liberal and conservative or red and blue for the party labels I’ve used, but the general picture I think you will agree is true.   We’re in a toxic political environment at this moment and opinions are plenty about how we reached it, and whether and how we might climb out of it.  But for those of us who are progressives, who thought only months ago that the arc of the last 40 years in American politics might finally be bending, it is beginning to seem clear that we have failed, again and again, at communicating a coherent and compelling world view.  We are losing a moral contest – well, not really, we hardly are contesting on that ground at all.  We have policies and programmes and bills, and many accomplishments that make life better for many people.  But we are in danger of losing what gains we have made because the story of which all those are a part has no moral.

I find it odd, as a person long, so long estranged from religion, so often an adversary of Bible-thumping crusaders, that I have come to believe we need to re-invigorate our moral discourse.  I said at the outset that I would try not to live up to the grandiosity of my title, and fear I have sometimes failed in the effort to be more modest, to avoid overstatement and hyperbole.  In the interest of trying one more time to redeem my promise, I’ll close with the advice of Henry David Thoreau, the sage of Walden Pond not far from where we meet today:  “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.