The Hudson Institute’s William Schambra has taken philanthropic organizations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, to task for focusing donor resources on the root causes of societal problemsHe cites the late James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory to argue that addressing the symptoms, instead of the causes, of social ills is the more effective -- and humble -- work that should serve as the guiding principle for thoughtful philanthropy. He challenges John D. Rockefeller’s assertion and my concurrence that “the best philanthropy . . . involves a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

While Mr. Schambra’s point about humility is well taken, his conclusion -- philanthropy should forget root causes and focus solely on symptoms -- is unnecessarily reductive. In fact, both approaches have merit and more often than not reflect donor intent.

Philanthropy does need to approach today’s complex problems with a healthy dose of humility. We must avoid the hubris of not understanding issues in their full complexity or failing to be reflective enough to learn from the past. Nor should we ever put our personal agenda ahead of our donors’. Rather, we need to understand their values, interests, and desires in a contemporary context.

At Pew, our largely family board, with a third generation of donor descendants serving now, provides the organization with a vibrant reminder of the intent of our founders, Joseph N. Pew Jr. and his siblings, who created the trusts in 1948. They understood that our work should evolve with societal needs. Indeed, his son, Joseph N. Pew III, who served on our founding board until his death last year, once addressed this question. “Seventy or 80 percent of the problems we work on today did not exist when the donors were alive,” he said. “They gave us the stewardship responsibility to lead this institution as the needs of society change, so let’s exercise it wisely.” We strive to do just that, and our board holds us accountable for it.

Philanthropy clearly does need to address the “broken windows” in our society. Pew certainly has learned, time and again, that focusing on basic needs and urgent problems not only provides a clear, tangible, immediate, and powerful impact, it also keeps us connected to our community. The Pew Fund for Health and Human Services, which marked its 20th anniversary last year, builds on the long-standing commitment of Pew’s founders to aid the least advantaged members of the Philadelphia region. Since 1991, the Pew Fund has provided annual support to more than 300 nonprofit organizations in our hometown and its surrounding Pennsylvania counties. These resources serve some of the most vulnerable residents, including disadvantaged children and families, adults with complex issues such as those related to homelessness and mental health problems, and the elderly.

To illustrate our focus on the very real needs of disadvantaged children, the Pew Fund is supporting high-quality afterschool programs, including those that offer mentoring, academic reinforcement, and college preparation; help for parents and teachers in identifying and addressing early signs of social and emotional challenges in children; and assistance that enables families to secure needed behavioral health treatment for their children. In addition, the Pew Fund supports training for childcare professionals, both home- and center-based, to more effectively meet the developmental needs of their young charges and better prepare them for school and success in life. Pew is committed to supporting organizations working on the front lines that are focused on solutions – exactly the “broken windows” approach.

However, I dispute Mr. Schambra’s view that philanthropy is an either-or proposition – that we should focus either on causes or symptoms. We must be humble enough to recognize that there isn’t just one right way. Doesn’t philanthropy work best as a “big tent” – a broad continuum of intentions and social investments? Some philanthropic donors seek to probe causes, and some focus on symptoms. But others address a combination of both.

Often, philanthropy can address symptoms most effectively by examining root causes and solutions. Let’s look at crime -- specifically, corrections. In 2007, Texas was set to build eight new prisons for its growing number of convicts, many with sentences related to drug offenses. State leaders on both sides of the aisle decided a better way to improve public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control costs was to address the revolving door of crime and incarceration. Pew provided technical assistance to the state, while working with a bipartisan group of stakeholders. Pew and its partners diagnosed the factors driving prison growth and provided policy options for reform. Texas adopted many of these recommendations and invested in a series of evidence-based, alternative programs for nonviolent offenders. The result: Parole failures dropped more than 25 percent -- and overall crime fell to levels not seen in 40 years. Prison growth leveled off and the state saved nearly $2 billion in expected costs.

Several prominent conservatives, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, support similar policy approaches to sentencing and corrections reform.

The Texas experience illustrates the role philanthropy can play in supporting the work of policymakers and the private sector in addressing root causes of critical national and local challenges and in adopting solutions that are not only effective -- but save valuable dollars that can be invested in education, service for the disadvantaged, and other pressing needs.

Dr. Wilson once said, “In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue.” For more than 200 years, private virtue has produced countless billions of dollars in philanthropy to support the public interest, whether in tackling causes or symptoms. None of us in the philanthropic sector is in a position to declare the wisest way to invest to meet important needs and opportunities when many effective approaches are available. Our nation and world face complicated -- and growing -- problems. The goal of philanthropy should be to put limited donor resources to the best, most effective use to serve the public interest.

Rebecca W. Rimel

President and CEO

The Pew Charitable Trusts