Of Charity and Term Limits

America’s political leaders recently considered closing some regulatory loopholes and forcing private foundations to distribute more of their money. Survey after survey shows that Americans view public charities with increasing skepticism. The independent sector — foundations and charities — feels besieged. Yet, by many accounts volunteering and individual giving are up; the sector is growing. What’s going on here?

There’s a lesson to be learned from politics in the 1990’s. Term limits — a bad idea whose time had come — were sweeping the nation. A major culprit was institutional smugness. In politics in the 1990’s, majorities of voters in nineteen states became fed up at what they perceived as arrogant power and reached for the nearest club that would give it its comeuppance. They picked term limits.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors ought to take the lesson of the last decade of the last century to heart. People nowadays mistrust large independent sector institutions because they seem unaccountable and somehow self-perpetuating. But those in the independent sector world do not seem to understand why. Rather than admit the real problem, they have mounted “branding campaigns,” or taken to offering political arguments about the myriad drawbacks of this proposal or that counterproposal. The sector has mounted influence campaigns and issued talking points. It has circled the wagons.

Seldom does one hear a voice calling for a real self-examination, one that would ask questions like: “Are we funding in the right way, in a way that is true to the ideals of philanthropy? Are we truly looking to find the areas where the need is greatest? Are we seeking to help civic America, or are we primarily concerned with how things affect our own particular institutions? Do we approach our public as we would fellow citizens, or just as clients of our paternal largesse?”

It is the answers to these questions that will provide a roadmap back to a trusting partnership with American public life. Eye-catching logos, clever management strategies, and mission statements won’t do it.

There is an anti-philanthropy backlash now creeping across the nation. Foundations feel it, non-profits feel it, colleges and universities feel it. It is not born of questions about results or effectiveness. Nor is it borne of tough economic times — indeed, charitable giving by individuals is by some measures on the rise. No, the backlash is growing because people do not trust the institutions involved.

Voluntary, non-governmental efforts on behalf of the public good are what made and continue to make America great. Charity — in the best sense of the term — is a fundamental American value. That must not be let to whither.

Voters may hate Congress, but they seem to love their individual House member enough to re-elect her or him with typically easy margins. At the same time in the late 90’s that a citizen might have been voting to term-limit any and all political leadership, he or she was probably also voting to give their individual representative another two years.

And, like the individual members of Congress whom citizens seem inexplicably to love, Americans are ready, willing and able to volunteer and to donate funds to charitable causes even as they mistrust the institutional structures that enable it. People want to do their part locally. Look no further than your local — unbranded — homeless shelter. Chances are you will find neighbors volunteering there, and you may choose to join in too. Or maybe you are one of the many Americans who already have.

Meanwhile, the political arguments continue. While the most recent battle may be won, the independent sector is in danger of losing the war.

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