Look at a social reformer in about 1910 and you’re likely to find someone who thought the Victorian notions of charity—where the donor personally knew the recipient, and strived to make the recipient not just economically viable, but morally and spiritually better—something that had to be rejected in favor of a “scientific” approach to giving.
In my monograph Return to Charity, I looked at the reasons why traditional charity fell out of favor. One reason was that the philanthropists of the day were hounded by people wanting some of their cash. Margaret Olivia Sage, who gave away more money in her era than anyone not named Carnegie or Rockefeller, received 50,000 letters asking for money within two years of her husband Russell Sage’s death. According to her friend and advisor, Robert W. DeForest, she once had to confront a clergyman “from a far-off place” who showed up in her parlor with a large carpetbag, which he hoped to use to “take the stuff” back with him.
But the staff officers of philanthropists went beyond acting as filters. They came up with a view that, instead of fighting poverty, you fought the causes of poverty, which led to foundations not helping poor people but funding people and organizations that studied how to help poor people.
Edward T. Devine, who edited The Survey, the leading journal for social workers, between 1905-15, explained in his memoirs that the modern view of helping the poor was “anticipatory justice, which deals not only with individuals that suffer but with social conditions that tend to perpetuate crime, pauperism, and degeneracy… The home, the factory, the school, the church, and the playground are all within its range.”
But in our century, as Urban Institute fellow Benjamin Soskis notes in this opinion piece from the Washington Post, charity seems to be making a comeback.
The news hook for his piece was a tweet by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who is also the owner of the Washington Post): “I want much of my philanthropy strategy to be in the here and now,” and said a good example was Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter in Seattle to which Amazon donates space.
Now the idea that Bezos would use his vast wealth on charity caused far too many nonprofit types to break out in hives. Didn’t he know the rules? Where was his army of program officers, with graduate degrees in nonprofit management, expert in capacity building to ensure that projects gradually cascade to scale? Where were the grants to double-blind studies to ensure that programs actually work?
Soskis linked to an irritating column in Forbes.com from someone affiliated with Ashoka, a nonprofit that encourages social entrepreneurs. But rather than quote him, I’ll quote his boss, Konstanze Frischen, who says that Bezos should look for “systems-changing and mind-shifting ideas” that will ensure that “your dollars will have way more impact” than spending on charity.
But Soskis notes that there is an increasing emphasis on charity as a proper way to give. Think of GiveDirectly, he suggests, or the rousing success of GoFundMe and other funding platforms. Efforts to pursue a universal basic income could also be considered allied with the idea that charity matters.
Soskis says that “the traditional ethic of charity” is “rooted in Catholic theology” and here he cites no less of an authority than Pope Francis, who in February told an Italian magazine called Scarp de’Tenis or “Tennis Shoes” (which seems to be an Italian equivalent of Street Sense) that giving money to beggars “is always right” and “tossing money and not looking in (their) eyes is not a Christian” way to behave. What if the beggar is going to spend money on booze? Well, the Pope said, “if a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?”
Here I’m reminded of something that I remember Tyler Cowen saying, which is that when he is in a destitute foreign country, he sees people sleeping on the street and leaves bills near them. But here’s the question I’d ask both Cowen and Pope Francis: how do you know beggars are who they say they are?
Here’s a situation that has happened to me several times. I’ve been asked for money by young men who are about 20 who own a smartphone and have nicer shoes than I have. They obviously do this because it’s a spiel that works for them. But if I ever gave money to them I would feel like a sucker.
Here’s another example. I once had a t-shirt from a national chain that I could turn in for ten free meals. I went up to a beggar and offered to give him a meal with it. He refused because he wasn’t interested in free food; all he wanted was to get paid.
By contrast, I always give money to street musicians because they provide a service. Buskers make life better and sometimes they can be excellent. If someone is singing for their supper I’m happy to help provide it.
The point is that there is no one best way to give. Sometimes charity is the answer, and sometimes it is philanthropy. Sometimes program-related investments may be the right way to go. The mix should vary with each donor and aim.
What is wrong is the idea that philanthropy is an expert-driven profession that can only be practiced from the commanding heights. That sort of arrogance leads to philanthropic mistakes.