Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

July 16, 2007

Common ground on social change

From the right and left, two smart philanthropic thinkers offer views of the role nonprofits and foundations can and should play in addressing social problems.

In separate columns in the June 28 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, conservative Bill Schambra and liberal Pablo Eisenberg both suggest opportunities for moving beyond limits they see in the social-change ambitions of charitable organizations.

Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., sees both arrogance and failure in the efforts by progressive philanthropy to tackle the underlying causes of problems like poverty.

“Die-hard believers in the search for root causes” dismiss as “contemptible charity” the work of addressing the symptoms of those problems, Schambra says, and themselves waste millions “on behalf of a mantra without meaning.”

Following a more practical and effective strategy, he says, are thousands of charities that “have come up with solid modest approaches to smaller, more limited aspects of problems.”

Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, blasts nonprofit leaders who whine that federal rules curbing nonprofits’ partisan politicking has “muzzled and silenced” nonprofits.

Nonprofits and foundations rightly steer clear of partisan politics to protect the tax-exempt and charitable status that is essential if they are to serve as an independent voice and force for social change, Eisenberg says.

What silences that voice and restrains that force, he says, is not a government muzzle or leash, but a “lack of leadership, courage, and competence among nonprofit leaders.”

Diverse ideas like those of Schambra and Eisenberg help drive a charitable marketplace in which progress ultimately depends on leadership that is both pragmatic and visionary.

For Schambra, moving beyond “a century of frantic and futile pursuit of ultimate answers” requires leaders who will champion “charity as a sensible alternative.”

For Eisenberg, moving nonprofits’ beyond their fear of engagement and “lack of activism” requires leaders who can help the sector recognize and overcome its own worst instincts, a dilemma he defines by quoting Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The nonprofit sector needs leaders who can push for change, both by addressing immediate problems and looking for ways to fix flawed public policies that underlie those problems.

The challenge is to find solutions that will work in the charitable marketplace and help the marketplace itself operate in a way that is more even-handed and open to diverse ways of thinking and acting.

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