Picking up on its potential wider implications, including for philanthropy.
Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story author Wilfred M. McClay made some telling remarks, almost in passing, during his recent appearance on the Liberty Law Talk podcast hosted by Law & Liberty editor Richard M. Reinsch II. Don’t let them pass. They might have helpful implications in contexts other than the particular one about which they were speaking—publishing.
“Nobody that I knew would step up, including myself,” to write a readable book like Land of Hope, begins McClay, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma (at about 7:30 into the podcast). We at The Giving Review have already lauded the book’s content, which offers a lucid, logical, and uplifting narrative of America to its school-aged citizens, but also to all citizens excited and willing to learn. It is an achievement.
Its provenance is interesting. McClay’s conversation with Reinsch continues:
McClay: I did not want to write a textbook. People started talking to me about it about maybe four or five years ago. I kept saying, You're right. You're right, we need a textbook, but I hope you find somebody to do it. I did not want to do it.
Reinsch: You say textbook. It didn't read to me like a textbook, though.
McClay: No, and that was one of the things I sort of stipulated at the outset, when I signed up to do this with Encounter Books, which is not a textbook publisher. I can't say enough good things about Encounter. I just want to say briefly that I’ve never done anything—even on a lesser scope, let alone this big—where I've had as much of a free hand as I’ve had.
Occasionally, [Encounter editor and publisher] Roger Kimball wanted to see, Well, you know, how are you doing? How far have you gotten along? He didn't want to inspect my chapters, or have somebody else do so. There was utter freedom.
When the book was coming out and I showed the proof to people, they said, This is really good. Why did you publish it with Encounter? I don't mean that the way it sounds, but they said, Why didn't you go to Norton or someplace like that?
I said, Well, they wouldn't let me write this way. I know that. I've dealt with those people. I know that they are very nervous about textbook committees, about stakeholders, about the sort of various pressure groups representing identity politics factions that want to protect their turf within the book. That's how we get the books that we have. They're not really written anymore; they are constructed with a view towards marketing and towards minimizing political flack, so you get what we get.
I was completely free. I was just one guy sitting up in his attic study beavering away at night over the course of a year and a half or so, writing this thing. I didn’t have a research assistant. I didn't have anything like that. I did have friends who were willing to read drafts and above all, my beloved wife Julie. I didn't do it all alone, but I didn't have to deal with all of that. My colleagues who write the big textbooks do have to negotiate all of that. It makes for an inferior product.
Facets for funders
First, note the freedom McClay references—in his case, for him, a writer and historian, to write history. The point about freedom that McClay applies to publishing and editing could perhaps also apply to running a company, leading a volunteer group, maybe parenting, and philanthropy. Grantees that can’t run a school, an arts or cultural organization, a think tank or research project, or any other nonprofit group or effort, for example, probably shouldn’t be grantees in the first place. Foundations or givers, or their staffs or advisors, usually don’t really know how to run a school, arts or cultural organization, or think tank or research project, by the way. One might think that should make any grantee oversight a little less overbearing.
For the grantee, this is freedom to do that for which it, he, or she is given the grant. It is consonant with the kind of general-operations support for which some of the more-successful conservative foundations have historically been known.
“[L]ook, the Bradley Foundation has never told me to do anything,” parental-rights activist and onetime Bradley grantee Howard Fuller said during his recent conversation with The Giving Review. “I’ve gone to them and said, here’s what I'm doing. They have either supported or not supported it. One of the more-interesting things, I say to people, is that the Bradley Foundation was much more hands-off than Gates and some of these so-called liberal foundations.
“To me,” he continued, paralleling McClay’s comments on Encounter’s Kimball,
the Bradley Foundation, they were straightforward. We’re going to support this or not. And then you don’t hear from them. It wasn’t like people are calling you, asking if you’re doing this or that. I don’t ever remember [former Bradley president] Michael Joyce or any of you saying, you’ve got to do this. I remember you saying whether you agree with this or not agree with it.
Second, as McClay references in his publishing context, note those infringements on freedom that are avoided. This is freedom from—in his case, from the oversolicitousness of supposed and often self-appointed “stakeholders,” the watered-down committee product, the too-early presence of marketers in the process. In the philanthropic context, there are many potentially corresponding equivalents.
My Giving Review co-editor Bill Schambra once catalogued what they could include, in a piece about the founding of The New Criterion—now edited by Kimball, as well. Among them: demanded and necessarily constantly redrafted strategic plans, with theories of change and logic models, including detailed budgets, concluding with unreasonable and perhaps only tangentially related benchmarks and measurable outcomes. All presented with elaborate Power Point presentations at one or more points, in an intimidatingly nicely appointed board room.
Third and finally, as McClay does in his remarks to Reinsch, note that at core, it’s a freed, singular individual in whom trust was placed. In grantmaking, “rather than doing fancy group projects, you’re often better off just finding a really smart individual who’s got a passion and an idea,” as former Joyce Foundation and German Marshall Fund president Craig Kennedy said during his recent Giving Review conversation.
Even if it takes them a while to turn the idea around, it’s still worth it. I’ve become more and more of a kind of methodological individualist over time. The notion that group processes necessarily produce more wisdom than a single smart person, I suppose statistically it might be true, but I think you still get so much more clarity and sharpness when you fund one smart person with a pen rather than a dozen people trying to fight over the direction of an idea.
Were more money given away with the kind of freedom and trust that McClay talks about as animating principles, maybe it would make for superior products. Like his Land of Hope, and in it, that too would be an achievement.