“Philanthropy is not a profession, and it should not become one. We should be rigorous. We should learn from our work. We should help our partners and be helped by them. But a wisdom-focused approach may produce better results than a science-based one.”

So declares Karl Stauber, president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation, in a provocative essay in The Foundation Review.

Have a strong opinion on this topic? Then don’t miss the discussion of Stauber’s essay planned this Thursday at the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal (registration details here; live broadcast here).

Stauber will defend his views in person, and the Bradley Center has assembled top-notch commentators representing differing views to engage in spirited discussion: Susan Ditkoff of The Bridgespan Group, The Foundation Review's Teri Behrens, and Joseph Palus, a Ph.D. student at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Center director William Schambra, who will moderate, has his own strong views. When the world’s first Ph.D. program in philanthropic studies was launched, he thoughtfully critiqued the field, noting multiple criticisms it has drawn. Peter Frumkin and Peter Dobkin Hall of Harvard have observed that nonprofit study programs tend to be in the thrall of large, bureaucratic foundations, which cause the programs to stick to milquetoast technical education. David Horton Smith, a scholar of grassroots nonprofits, observes that academic work on the nonprofit sector tends to ignore the overwhelming majority of actual nonprofits, which are small and lack any pretense of professionalism. Scholar-activist Pablo Eisenberg, a man of the Left, has written that academic centers are "not as productive or as rooted in reality as they should be," thanks to the "absence of outstanding nonprofit executives, either in residence or as adjunct faculty members."

Schambra added that because such training programs focus

on teaching "inside functions," such as management skills, finance, and human resource development, their graduates are ill-prepared to step into organizations whose fates are tightly interwoven with "outside" forces, especially government, which has become the chief financier of many nonprofits. Over-correction in this direction, however, will leave nonprofit education open to the charge of being classrooms for Big Government advocacy and ideological activism.

Finally, Schambra concluded, their fellow academics tend to scoff at nonprofit scholars as amateurish. When “pure” scholars turn to the big questions raised by nonprofits, they ignore the work of nonprofit specialists.

Another Schambra essay on the value of experts in philanthropy also bears on Stauber’s article. Both authors begin around the turn of the last century, when the earliest large foundations proudly contributed to dramatic improvements in the medical profession. Medicine, of course, does fit the bill for a profession, and we should all be grateful for advances in this scientific profession, without which many of us wouldn’t be alive.

But as Schambra notes, problems arose when people who had succeeded in improving the care of Americans’ bodies presumed that the same professional scientific methods can be applied to human persons and society. Several of the same pioneering foundations committed this error, which led them into the pseudo-science of eugenics and even into funding such work in 1930s Germany, where treating needy persons on the level of harmful bacteria was all too easy.

Indeed, even in today’s medical profession one sees the fundamental problem of sciences that deal with parts of the human being while lacking wisdom about the whole person. When my own father lay dying a few years ago, he had several superbly professional doctors, but in their hyper-specialization each of them would only discuss whatever aspect of Dad’s health lay in his own parochial expertise. The orthopedic surgeon would discuss a fractured hip but not pneumonia, the infectious disease specialist was happy to talk about pneumonia but refused all other subjects, and so on. Not one doctor would discuss the man who was actually lying in the bed, suffering many conflicting health issues that put him on the brink of death.

And each, by the way, was clearly obsessed with the metrics being used to measure his performance, urging his particular treatment be carried out so his “success” rate would not be harmed, whether or not that treatment conflicted with other needed treatments or was simply torturous to a dying man. Thank God I found a wise hospice nurse who was willing to discuss all of Dad’s conditions and help me balance out the advantages and disadvantages of the various treatments for each of Dad’s ailing parts.

If one man’s body is so complicated, so in need of a wisdom that looks at more than just one of its parts, how much more complicated is one man or woman’s soul in a slum or a dysfunctional family? And how yet more complicated is an entire neighborhood of souls? A city? A nation?

No wonder that although the profession of medicine has many advances to brag about, there are precious few such “breakthroughs” in the social sciences, much less in the work of donors who strain to piggyback on the drooping shoulders of the social sciences.

Stauber is right about donors and charities: “We should be rigorous. We should learn from our work. We should help our partners and be helped by them. But a wisdom-focused approach may produce better results than a science-based one.”

(Footnote: I second Schambra’s view that in lieu of “professional” training, the best philanthropic education involves hands-on experience as an apprentice donor and engagement with the best texts on how civil society actually works, including Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community. I’d add to the reading list Amy Kass’s outstanding collections of readings for donors, The Perfect Gift and Giving Well, Doing Good, which include excerpts of thinkers and practitioners from Plato to Shakespeare, Julius Rosenwald, and Waldemar Nielsen. [I reviewed Kass’s second book here.] Doctors looking to strengthen their profession's humane traditions may want to read Toward a More Natural Science, written by Kass's husband, Leon Kass M.D.)