The New Mission for Philanthropy

By Alexander, Lamar; Coleman, Reed et al. | Policy Review, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

The New Mission for Philanthropy


Alexander, Lamar, Coleman, Reed, Bennett, Elayne, Dam, Kenneth W., Delaney, Henry, Jr., Dennis, Kimberly O., Finn, Chester E., Jr., Hill, Jerry E., Horner, Constance, Lechtenberg, Jennie, Lock, William H., Rivera, Juan, Williams, Sam A., Policy Review


Shocking amounts of charitable giving are gravely misdirected and wholly ineffective. A report from a commission chaired by Lamar Alexander points the way toward a reformation of American philanthropy.

"Giving Better, Giving Smarter," a report by the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, is the most significant work on the value of private charitable efforts since the report of the Filer Commission in 1975. Supported by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the NCPCR aims to assess "how private giving in America can help revive our poorest communities and promote self-sufficiency and independence among our citizens." Its members include: Lamar Alexander (chairman), Reed Coleman (vice chairman), Elayne Bennett, Kenneth W. Dam, the Rev. Henry Delaney Jr., Kimberly O. Dennis, Chester E. Finn Jr., the Rev. Jerry E. Hill, Constance Horner, Sister Jennie Lechtenberg, William H. Lock, Pastor Juan Rivera, and Sam A. Williams. Its Web site is www.ncpcr.org.

America is the richest, most generous nation on Earth. In no other country do individuals, communities, foundations, corporations, and other private philanthropies give so many billions of dollars to such a wide variety of worthy causes and organizations. Yet among all these commendable activities and missions, helping people in need has always played a special role. For many Americans, it defines the essence of charity.

Today, however, far too much of the private largesse intended by its donors to improve the condition of the poor is misspent or misdirected. This gap between the generosity and good intentions of Americans and the actual impact of their giving on those in need is the central concern of the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

Since our founding last year, we have focused on private efforts to help the poor, by which we mean organized, nongovernmental attempts to aid the hungry, the homeless, the chronically unemployed, the addicted, the severely disabled, and anyone whose life has been made miserable by the effects of long-term poverty. We chose this focus knowing full well that an immense world of private philanthropy also supports, to name just a few examples, hospitals, education, cultural institutions, and the environment. We value these, too. But we chose not to make them our concern.

There is good reason to believe that philanthropy for people in need demands more urgent attention today. For many years, the United States has seen a vigorous public debate about the reformation of welfare policies. It is in this area where government's role is now undergoing the greatest (and, we think, long-overdue) upheaval and where private giving and private institutions will be dramatically affected.

Hence we have made it the heart of our report. We have concluded that much of the private philanthropy designed to help our poorest citizens and most distressed communities is gravely flawed; well-intended, to be sure, but often ineffective, inefficient, even misguided.

Our hope is that private charitable activity, if pursued in the right way, will play a greater role in reviving troubled neighborhoods and assisting individuals who cannot make it on their own. It is our secret weapon. Yet it would be an error to assume that today's philanthropy establishment is ready -- or even willing -- to shoulder that important role. Far too much charitable giving is wasted on efforts that make scant difference in the lives of individuals or the well-being of communities. True, the same criticism could be and has been made of countless government social programs. But we believe private giving should be held to an even higher standard. We have therefore come together not to assess what government has done or should do, but instead to recommend how private giving might renew itself.

We believe there is an urgent and singularly valuable role for such giving, distinct from government efforts to aid the poor and from the appeals of large, national charities. …

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