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Opinion

October 29, 2009

How Even Great Foundations Can Do More for the Common Good

By Mark Rosenman

In the past few decades the growth of organized philanthropy has brought more grant making for all kinds of causes — including efforts to feed hungry people, prevent illness, protect human rights and the environment, and promote arts and culture. Some of those grant programs have made a big difference while others have not, prompting questions about foundations' operations.

Some people say foundations support projects valuable only to a select, and often privileged, slice of the population or give money to causes with comparatively narrow appeal. Others contend that with the varied missions of endowed foundations, combined with living donors' interests, just about all causes end up getting served in some way, even if the amount spent is not always appropriate to the need.

Increasingly, as skepticism about philanthropy's spending has grown, policy makers and others have begun to ask if it is wise just to give foundations a free hand to pick what causes and groups they will support. How significant and enduring are the benefits from philanthropic support? Can foundations' contribution to society be measured by summing up all of those separate and disparate efforts and comparing them to the costs of foundations' special tax treatment? Are foundations truly serving the common good?

When Caring to Change (a project I direct) talked with more than 150 foundation and nonprofit staff members — and then brought together a group of philanthropic leaders — to consider how grant making might have a greater impact, we started by asking whether decreasing suffering, improving arts and education, and all other such diverse efforts were sufficient to prove the point that foundations well serve people and society. While those are all very good things, they may even be great things, the answer from the people we asked was clear: Philanthropy must do more for the common good.

Caring to Change also sought these participants' ideas about how grant making could achieve more substantial and sustainable results. They concluded that since current grant-making practices don't yield enough, new approaches are needed. The role of philanthropy, they said, must indeed be to truly serve the common good. No matter how well each foundation does in its particular mission and grant-making niche, each foundation needs to advance the broader interest. They were clear that the common good is more than an aggregation of individual goods that benefit particular groups or causes.

The challenge to foundations then is to set their programs in context of the common good: to help grant makers, policy makers, and the public at large understand that it is possible to focus on a narrow mission as long as their grant-making efforts are designed creatively to ensure they will have broader benefits that strengthen the fabric of America.

For instance, the hotel mogul Leona Helmsley's much-discussed directive that her foundation's billions ought to tend to the welfare of dogs has attracted much controversy. Perhaps it would have raised fewer eyebrows if it had been interpreted to include, for instance, efforts to increase the diversity of people studying the veterinary sciences. After all, many minority and poor people who might make great veterinarians probably would never get the opportunity unless a donor decided to support an effort to reach out to them and help them prepare and pay for their education.

It could also mean supporting organizations that work with individuals who are cruel to animals, with an understanding that the dehumanizing circumstances of some people's lives may too often lead to poor treatment of animals. It might even provide aid to poor people who can't afford to properly feed or provide veterinary care for their pets. Such a creative approach to thinking about what it means to help dogs could lead to grant-making that advances the common good.

Yet even such creatively cast grant-making programs probably would fall short in advancing the common good if they were designed principally to help individuals, apart from their communities and longer-term considerations. To fully benefit the common good, grant makers would focus on the causes of the problems they seek to solve, and their efforts would be informed by an understanding of the interdependencies of people, communities, and institutions.

For instance, if minorities or people from low-income neighborhoods too rarely enroll in veterinary schools, why is that so and how can those dynamics be changed for the entire group rather than just for select individuals? How can we challenge dehumanization instead of simply counseling individuals who abuse animals? And if low-income people have difficulty covering the costs of pet care, how can we raise their income levels or reduce the costs of care rather than simply providing individuals with a subsidy?

But then exactly what does it mean to work for the common good —does it mean to improve the lives of poor people and others at the margins of our society?

Put simply, working for the common good means operating in the interests of the broadest possible swath of people according to long established values.

It requires action, based on both morality and enlightened self-interest, to better allow all people to enjoy a life of justly and humanely distributed resources, rewards, responsibilities and obligations. It requires working for change in society as well as in organized philanthropy.

Each foundation might seek to commit itself to fulfilling the broad role of philanthropy. Such a role was best expressed decades ago by the renowned public leader and foundation official Paul Ylvisaker: Foundations might simultaneously provide relief to individuals and for causes in need of immediate help; build and support institutions that offer goods to all, including those not in immediate need; and work to change the social, economic, political, and other dynamics that constrain the common good.

But what kind of change? Committing to the common good will require foundations to wrestle with defining it fully. And to do so, foundations themselves will need to become clearer about their values. Yet most grant makers seem to shy away from proclaiming theirs. Some probably fear that declaring values will move them toward ideology, while others may be reluctant to tread into such highly personal territory.

Foundations ought to fear little, however. The fact is that the common good rests on values that are central to the American credo. Since our founding, Americans' sense of the common good has been enshrined in the Constitution. It means freedom from untoward interference in our individual and collective lives, as secured by the Bill of Rights. It means freedom to have equal opportunities to pursue society's rewards, independent of the circumstances of our birth, demographic characteristics, and socioeconomic class, as is promised by the American Dream.

Researchers show us that justice, fairness, and freedom are central to the common good. Responsibility for ourselves and one another, commitment beyond ourselves and compassion for others, reciprocity and mutuality, truth, and honesty, also are significant, as are connection and community. While grant makers and others may not always agree on all of elements of the common good, it is imperative that those ideals be at the core of how foundations define their value systems.

Foundations need to respect, even promulgate, the values that undergird our ability to live in communities and societies governed by laws and regulations that themselves are fundamental to the broader common good. Those common values, grounded in our religious traditions, are essential to defining, assuring, and extending the common good. It cannot be achieved through piecemeal application of selected values.

Some of those values may be seen at times to conflict with one another, especially by conservative and progressive foundations.

Apparent contradictions can arise in applying values, most often when individual rights and freedom are contested with the social whole.

For instance, an individual's freedom may be constrained by calls for mutual responsibility, the requirements to refrain from acts harmful to another, or sometimes even by justice. In a multicultural society, disagreements can often arise in the effort to balance respect for individual rights and community traditions.

In such situations, foundations must not confuse "common values" with "majority rules," particularly when that majority is not built on a base of equitable participation for all in society.

In articulating the elements of the common good for organized philanthropy, it is essential that the diversity of the populace have full voice and power. This includes representation across socioeconomic class as well as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, and other important characteristics.

Such pursuits create a clear, if circular, agenda for foundations. In serving the common good, it is essential that social justice prevail: that all in society have both the right and the capacity to participate effectively in defining it through discourse and in action. The common good also requires full and equal access to participation in our democratic processes and institutions, as well as effective controls over any abuse of power and position. This becomes circular because social justice is an inevitable outcome of any effort to promote the common good.

The commitment to define and act on common-good values ought not to be seen as a theoretical exercise. Rather, it is a prudent decision that allows foundations to move beyond narrow interests and self-regard to realize a society in which all may prosper. In fact, it is precisely because of the common good that individuals may themselves be secure in society's benefits and in their own accomplishments and rewards.

By thinking about and acting on the common good, foundations are more likely to produce significant and sustainable results in achieving their missions and at the same time promote changes that make a difference in the broader society.

The time for this shift has come: too many people seem to have lost sight of the notion that "we're all in this together, we're all in the same boat" and substituted "every person for herself or himself, every boat on its own bottom." As a consequence of such narrowly focused attention and selfishness, a universe of societal problems has become more intractable and their solutions more difficult. Problems spread in breadth and depth, filling the void left by diminishing concern for one another and for the whole.

No matter what the mission of any foundation, we indeed are all in this together. While differences among donors and across our society certainly exist, it is only by seeking the common good that we can find enduring and fully consequential benefit from grant making. As the sociologist Robert Bellah reminds us, "'We the People' are not a special-interest group."

With foundations' leadership, the common good — and philanthropy's contributions to it — will be increasingly recognized and appreciated by policy makers and the broader public.

Mark Rosenman directs Caring to Change, a project in Washington that seeks to improve how grant making serves the public.