Philanthropists tend to see their role as funding new projects and new ideas. Unfortunately, this overlooks the importance of preserving tradition.
Ask a program officer what her job consists of, and she’s likely to say that it consists in funding new things—new ideas, innovative approaches, definitive solutions. But as Baylor University political scientist Elizabeth C. Corey notes in this article from First Things, it might be an equally important task for program officers to preserve the past.
Corey discusses Camp Green Cove, located near Asheville, North Carolina, which she attended in the early 1990s and which she sent her daughter to this past summer. She argues that the camp, founded in 1945, has changed very little in the past quarter century and that its traditions are its great strength.
What are these traditions? There’s nothing electronic involved. If you want to send a note to a boy in nearby Camp Mondawin, you have to write it by hand, and it will be delivered by “Pony Express.” Replies may show up four days later. Since you can’t stare at your phone at camp, “the girls are ‘forced’ to play cards, talk, read, and write letters.” Days begin with songs, some old songs, such as “Mountain Greenery,” and some as recent as Taylor Swift. Classes occur at the same times each day. The girls form bonds with other girls and they have adventures in the woods—climbing, hiking, and biking—that they won’t forget.
There’s also no heating or air conditioning at Camp Green Cove. “By the middle of camp everything smells faintly of mildew from wet swimsuits and muddy hiking boots,” she observes.
The camp isn’t cheap, but traditions need not just be the preserve of the rich. John Kelly of the Washington Post recently wrote about the Eistophos Science Club, that has been meeting since 1893. According to the club’s website, the group, which supports women interested in science, was founded by suffragists. They currently meet in a retirement community in the Washington suburbs. Every club member has to give a lecture once a year on a scientific topic, and the meetings are called to order by a gavel that has been passed on, one president to the next, since the club’s founding.
Such traditions are hard to sustain and easy to destroy. New Urbanists talk about “good blocks”: places with a mixture of new and old businesses and institutions that make a particular city distinctive. Most cities have two or three good blocks. A few have five. Many have none—the good blocks they had were destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification.
Traditions also are something separate from politics. Communing with tradition reduces, not enlarges, the part that politics plays in our lives.
For program officers interested in preserving tradition and conserving the past, Corey offers a list of projects. “Our task is to build and care for institutions like classical schools, Great Books charter schools, Christian and Jewish colleges and universities, churches and synagogues, neighborhoods, camps, and, of course, families,” she writes. “And little of this important work is done at an explicitly political level.”
Those funders who support tradition should fund projects that transcend the wars between red and blue. The Packard Humanities Institute, which seceded from the Packard Foundation in the late 1990s, is a good role model. It supports archeology, new editions of great classical composers, and, most importantly, preserving and restoring the world’s films. They’re the best example of a tradition-centered foundation that I know about.
Funders interested in preserving have many organizations that are worthy of your charity. Preserving and conserving the past is a worthy—and neglected—role of philanthropy.