Money Well Spent (2nd Edition) Forum

In a Democracy, Is That Really a Social Problem?

Editors’ Note: Adding to HistPhil’s forum on Money Well Spent, HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey considers the democratic importance of pushing back against Paul Brest and Hal Harvey’s commitment to value neutrality throughout the book, and particularly in their discussion of social problems. Relating her historical work on Carnegie Corporation’s response to black nationalism in the 1920s, Morey stresses: “As democratic citizens—as human beings—it is our responsibility to police philanthropy’s relative value, and to do so from the very beginning as philanthropists start defining the social problems in need of philanthropic solutions.”

In their introduction to Money Well Spent (2018), Paul Brest and Hal Harvey write that much like “a car repair manual a guide to strategic philanthropy is essentially value neutral.” In fact, the authors remain committed to this value-neutral perspective throughout the book. Instead of judging the philanthropic interests or objectives of their intended readers, for example, Harvey and Brest present themselves as agnostic advisers eager to help all types of philanthropists “to design a strategy to achieve their charitable goals and to assess the strategies of organizations that seek their support.”

Stressing that inefficient giving is a looming problem in philanthropy, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey have intended to help solve the problem by assisting philanthropists—irrespectively of whether they personally agree with these individuals’ philanthropic goals—to “actually make a difference” by being more effective with their giving.

The authors’ agnostic approach to advising philanthropists is clear throughout the book, including Chapter 2 “Problem Analysis,” a section of Money Well Spent which piqued my interest. Here, the authors guide their readers in defining a social problem, pushing philanthropists to embrace an “effective problem statement.” Communicated in four bullet points, Brest and Harvey describe the key elements for such an effective statement:

  • It gets to the heart of the problem—what the problem is really about.
  • It identifies your intended beneficiaries—for whom you are solving the problem.
  • It is not a particular solution in disguise but is sufficiently broad to admit to a range of solutions and not foreclose any plausible ones.
  • It avoids hidden and dubious factual assumptions.

In particular, I was intrigued by the authors’ mention of “assumptions” in this final bullet point, and thus, their advice to philanthropists to deconstruct their various presuppositions in naming and describing a social problem.

During the past two years, I have been on a research sabbatical facilitated by an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship from Carnegie Corporation of New York. And during this time, I have been immersed in the archives of the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, analyzing when and why these foundations became particularly engaged with white-black relations in twentieth-century United States. And while reading through a century’s worth of annual reports, board minutes, and correspondence, and thus penetrating the perspectives of various foundation leaders at these three organizations over the span of a century, I have been especially intrigued by the assumptions that these historical actors internalized about race relations. This helps explain why this specific section of Money Well Spent caught my attention. After all—and relating the quest for “hidden and dubious factual assumptions” to my historical research—presumptions indeed played directly into when foundation leaders became particularly interested in addressing white-black relations and how they intended to engage.

To this point, and as I explain in my forthcoming book, the Carnegie Corporation in the 1920s and 1930s viewed white-black relations across the Atlantic as a critical social problem, not because the organization aimed principally to advocate on behalf of subordinated blacks, but because it was mainly concerned that social stability was being threatened by intellectual and social currents such as black nationalism. Underscoring the importance and value to the Carnegie Corporation of extending its grant-making program to British Africa, for example, one adviser stressed in a 1925 memorandum to the organization that the “growth of a racial consciousness among black peoples is likely to result in the American Negro problem coming to be regarded on both sides [of the Atlantic] as only one element in a world problem of the relations between the white and black races.” Far from ignoring this adviser’s warnings, the president of Carnegie Corporation at the time circulated the memorandum to his board and continuously leaned on this adviser throughout the next decade to help guide the organization’s developing grant program in British Africa.

This reason for viewing race relations across the Atlantic as particularly problematic and thus worthy of a philanthropic solution remains, well, problematic to me because it undermines the democratic principles of equality and freedom.

Granted, black nationalism in the 1920s arguably could have threatened social stability across the Atlantic. But considering that international peace at the time—this status quo—was predicated on white domination and black subordination, was this threat necessarily a problem? Looked through the lens of these democratic principles, for example, the presence of black nationalism was rather a good thing. Because in the process of empowering subordinated blacks, democratic societies across the Atlantic could then become more democratic. This is to say: black nationalism, much like feminism, is an intellectual and social movement challenging social stability. That said, any efforts to quash such threats to the status quo frustrate the healthy development of more egalitarian, more free democratic societies for all of its citizens.

At some level, I acknowledge that this argument might seem intuitive through the lens of feminism: After all, it is arguably easier for a greater number of people to see how feminist currents are not a social problem, but rather, means toward a better and more democratic future. By comparison, it might be harder for some individuals to internalize my equation between feminism and black nationalism. As it happens in the United States at times, some people might want to compare black nationalism to white nationalism, as two nationalist movements threatening the social good of racial integration and harmony in democratic societies such as the United States. However, to that point, any equation between black and white nationalisms is a false equivalence, devoid of any acknowledgement of power differentials between whites and blacks. In this vein, black nationalism is as similar to white nationalism as feminism is to misogyny. While white nationalism and misogyny are indeed actual societal problems in democracies—in their very oppression of fellow citizens—black nationalism and feminism are not. Rather, the latter two intellectual and social movements are means for oppressed citizens to empower themselves toward greater freedom and equality: toward more egalitarian and free democratic societies.

But again, Money Well Spent aims to remain agnostic to such value-driven conversations on democratic life. And so, even within their discussion of assumptions in the construction of social problems, the authors limit their critical engagement to what they call “empirical assumptions.” In this section of Chapter 2, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey thus encourage their philanthropist readers to move beyond their presumptions “about the needs and interests of beneficiaries to learn what they actually are.” In this way, the authors advise philanthropists to move beyond their own psyches and conduct some field work among their intended beneficiaries to realize any and all false assumptions that they harbor both about their intended beneficiaries’ needs and their own means for achieving their philanthropic goals for these intended communities.

As far as the novelty of this advice in Money Well Spent, I can fairly say that Carnegie Corporation in the 1920s and 1930s indeed did as Brest and Harvey recommend in the book: They maintained a network of beneficiaries in white-black relations (whites generally, and more specifically, white policymakers across the Atlantic) and listened and reacted to these intended beneficiaries’ advice on white-black relations. This is to say that dialoguing with beneficiaries about their needs and expectations is neither new nor (more importantly to me) does it necessarily serve as a check on philanthropists’ construction of undemocratic social problems.

In Money Well Spent, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey clearly are invested in remaining neutral in judging the relative merits or consequences of philanthropists’ various causes. By contrast, I suggest that we cannot—in democratic societies—afford such a level of agnosticism. Because what philanthropists might perceive as a social problem, and thus too destabilizing in society, might simply be another group’s effort to achieve a sense of equality and freedom. And far from problematic, this threat to the status quo is a good thing in a democracy, a movement toward a more robust democratic life for all of us. Philanthropists thus should never brand such social instability as social problems; they should never play a role in thwarting such intellectual and social efforts toward greater equality and freedom among democratic citizens.

And so, while I understand and appreciate Paul Brest and Hal Harvey’s efforts to improve philanthropic giving by focusing on strategy and efficiency, philanthropy is not (and never should be perceived to be) value neutral in societies espousing democratic principles. And this is because philanthropy is always and in varying degrees either undermining or strengthening democratic life. As democratic citizens—as human beings—it is our responsibility to police philanthropy’s relative value, and to do so from the very beginning as philanthropists start defining the social problems in need of philanthropic solutions.

-Maribel Morey

Maribel Morey is the co-editor of HistPhil and an Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University.

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