What if Philanthropy Acted Abnormally?

Strategic Philanthropy
Wednesday, November 9, 2011

“What has happened in America (is) that we have normalized child and family poverty, homelessness and hunger….” said Marion Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, at the October dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C.   On the day of his assassination, Edelman recounted, Dr. King had called his mother to share the sermon he planned to give the next Sunday titled: "Why America May Go to Hell." Dr. King warned that "America is going to hell if we don't use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life."

Dr. King had called for a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, when there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children, and our GDP was $4.13 trillion.  Today, Marion Wright Edelman said, there are 16.4 million poor children in the United States and the number of extremely poor children -- 7.4 million -- in our nation is equivalent to the population of Israel.  The number of poor children under five in the U.S. -- 5.5 million -- exceeds the population of Sierra Leone.

Today one in three Black and one in six Hispanic boys born in 2001 are at risk of prison in their lifetimes. Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid and poor children of color are its fodder, said Wright in her speech at the dedication of the memorial to Dr. King.  And, she said, the fact that more than a majority of children in all income and racial groups and nearly 80 percent of Black and Hispanic children cannot read or compute at grade level in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades is a national catastrophe which will bring our nation down.

My question is “Where is the outrage?”  Why have we all accepted these realities and what happened to our vision and aspirations?  I am old enough to have actually been part of the War on Poverty that President Johnson proclaimed.  "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," he announced. The Office of Economic Opportunity was established to provide training for the poor and community-action programs gave the poor themselves a voice in housing, health and education programs. In the decade between 1960 and 1969, the percentage of Americans classified as poor fell from 20 percent of the population to 12 percent. Infant mortality among the poor fell by one-third in the decade after 1965 as a result of expanded federal medical and nutritional programs.

And I remember President Nixon’s call for a guaranteed annual income and his creation of Section 8 housing vouchers which allowed low income families to pay 30 percent of their income to live in private housing while the government paid the remainder.

When I go to meetings today, I wonder how we became so complacent.  While the statistics and realities are so outrageous, we continue to talk about isolated programs and initiatives. As Marion Wright Edelman said so profoundly, we have normalized poverty, hunger, and homelessness.  And we have gotten used to – and even comfortable - having the same discussions among the same players – polite discussions in often luxurious settings – totally forgetting the vision of the Great Society, where poor people themselves would have a voice in the discussion and decisions.

What can philanthropy do to empower poor people?  A first step would be to go outside of our normal comfort zones and ask people themselves about their lives, their needs, their dreams.  That’s the approach taken by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, as recounted by Emmett D. Carson, chief executive, in a recent New York Times story, “Donors Weight the Ideals of Meaningful Giving.”  He was asked why his foundation is working on foreclosure and explains it’s because in public meetings they conducted, they heard over and over that people were struggling with mortgage payments.  Similarly, in the same article, Doris Buffett talks about the letters she receives directly from individuals asking for money to put tires on their cars so they can go to work, for new glasses, for dental work, etc.  Ms. Buffett says that by fulfilling these requests she feels that her Sunshine Lady Foundation is empowering people. “The best return is when we change lives for the better in some way, that’s the commanding thought behind all I do.”

Listening to people’s own ideas about how to improve their lives is also the basic concept behind a design show currently showing at the United Nations.  Text to Change is about global strategies to improve living conditions for the world’s poorest people, strategies in which the poor themselves – the intended beneficiaries of each project – were involved from the start as creators and implementers. “Good design involves bringing not just a fresh eye to problems but, most of all, listening to the people who live in those communities…You can see them as a billion problems, or a billion solutions,” said Cynthia E. Smith, the show’s curator, in the New York Times.

Philanthropy could also use its resources to shine a bright light on issues of poverty, to translate the data into accessible stories and images that make people pay attention.  That’s the idea behind the Hine Fellows Program, funded by an anonymous TPI donor.  It is named after Lewis Hine who, in the early 20th century, used his camera to call attention to the conditions in which children were working and helped bring about child labor laws.  Today Hine Fellows are placed in community-based organizations in Greater Boston to use storytelling, pictures, and other media to call attention to the child and family poverty that exists a century after Lewis Hine’s initial work.

The game changing potential of effective storytelling and the ability of philanthropy to mobilize this power was eloquently described in a recent blog by Dr. John Brothers in Stanford Social Innovation Review, “How the Nonprofit Sector is Misusing its Greatest Asset.” Brothers begins by remembering how moved he was by such books as Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude Brown; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and 20 Years at Hull House by Jane Addams. These books not only explored issues of poverty in American society, he says, but they changed the face of the social service sector in America and the government’s response to the poor.  Today, Brown says, grant makers possess an infinite number of narratives on hand that tell the story of our nation’s economy. “Imagine the possibilities if organizations could share grantee information to better understand community need. Let’s just take the largest 600 grantmakers (in New York City)…imagine if all of these groups logged the statistics and data gleaned from their current or prospective grantees’ statements of need from their grant applications or progress reports.”  But, as Brown recounts, grantmakers do not see this as their role.  He recounts the responses he got when he asked foundations what they were learning from reports submitted to them.  Overall, he heard two things.  Some funders said the purpose of the reports was merely to see if grantees were fulfilling the grant requirements.  The other response was that they did not want to share the information. According to Brown, one of the leading groups stated, ‘We own this data, why would we release it.”

What can philanthropy do about the normalization of poverty?  It can act “abnormal” – against standard operating procedure.  Philanthropy can take advantage of the resources at its disposal, including available data, and use its bully pulpit to provide moral leadership. In the words of Gara LaMarche, who recently stepped down as President of Atlantic Philanthropies, speaking at a forum at M.I.T. in 2010: “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.”

LaMarche went on in his M.I.T. speech to quote Peter Karoff, founder of TPI, speaking about philanthropy: “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.”  And LaMarche concluded his speech by saying, in reference to philanthropy, “We are losing a moral contest – well, not really, we hardly are contesting on that ground at all.  We have policies and programs 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.”