Money Well Spent (2nd Edition) Forum

Philanthropic Poverty Action: A Brief History of Strategic Donor Behavior

Editors’ Note: Erica Kohl-Arenas continues HistPhil‘s forum on Paul Brest and Hal Harvey‘s Money Well Spent (2008, 2018). Focusing on the authors’ analysis of philanthropic strategy and social change, Kohl-Arenas provides “some brief historical accounts to show how funders’ inability to solve the problems they set out to address is not necessarily due to lack of strategy—as Brest and Harvey suggest throughout Money Well Spent—but is rather, as proposed at the end of their book, often a result of the limited, yet often strategic, perspectives presented in predominant philanthropic theories of social change which often serve to maintain the status quo.” 

One of the main messages of Paul Brest and Hal Harvey’s Money Well Spent is that effective philanthropy requires donors to develop strategies based on their own analysis of the problems they aim to address, and theories of change that clearly articulate goals and proposed actions. Throughout the book, the co-authors indeed present these guiding principles for philanthropists eager to achieve visible societal change. And yet, in the book’s afterword Brest and Harvey highlight a major contradiction in wealthy donors’ own social change theories, however strategic. As they admit: “It is (likewise) odd to ask those who benefit most from the status quo – and let’s face it, that describes most philanthropists – to challenge the status quo.”

Relating the authors’ main argument in Money Well Spent with their afterword, I provide some brief historical accounts to show how funders’ inability to solve the problems they set out to address is not necessarily due to lack of strategy—as Brest and Harvey suggest throughout Money Well Spent—but is rather, as proposed at the end of their book, often a result of the limited, yet often strategic, perspectives presented in predominant philanthropic theories of social change which often serve to maintain the status quo. My contribution to this HistPhil forum includes examples of how this has played out in the context of early- and mid-twentieth-century philanthropic strategies to alleviate poverty in the United States.

One of the central philanthropic ‘ways of seeing’ that maintains the status quo is the tendency to favor individualistic and behavioral solutions to alleviating poverty over strategies that aim to hold industry or mainstream institutions, that maintain unequal access to opportunities and power, accountable. In Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (2002), for example, Alice O’Connor shows how funders and social scientists have together inspired the historical turn away from collectivist and socialist approaches, towards individualistic and behavioral approaches to alleviating poverty. Echoing this turn, Brest and Harvey propose that, “The ultimate outcomes of virtually every social program require effecting changes in beneficiaries’ behaviors.” By separating questions of production, labor, and institutionalized structural inequality from the moral and behavioral explanations of poverty, philanthropic-social science theories of change have depoliticized strategies to alleviate poverty, evidenced by specific interventions during historical moments of crisis.

Perhaps the original American philanthropist to articulate the individualist behavioral improvement approach was Andrew Carnegie. In 1889, Carnegie proposed, “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” Commenting on unprecedented rapid industrialization, Andrew Carnegie worried about the growing divide between the rich and poor. His concern, to be clear, was not rooted in any particular unease with the very existence of poverty. On the contrary, he believed that the growing economic divide was the natural result of progress and the individualistic “survival of the fittest.” Rather, Carnegie was concerned with the possibility of urban unrest bred from the distrust between men in an increasingly divided society reliant on “thousands of operatives in the factory, or in the mine, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom he is little better than a myth.” In the spirit of American individualism and bootstraps capitalism, Carnegie proposed that the new rich had a responsibility to help the poor help themselves in the interest of preventing protest.

In Money Well Spent, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey in no way echo Carnegie’s efforts to protect the “industrial capitalist class” and include sections on advocacy and strategies to change corporate behavior. However, like Carnegie, they do propose that, “polarization, even when an unavoidable by product of desirable social change, is harmful to society” and that promoting consensus between industry and advocates is an important role for funders to play. For example, in Chapter 15 Brest and Harvey present Nike as a model strategist in a discussion about the corporation’s response to massive campaigns against poor working conditions in their manufacturing plants. The authors quote Hannah Jones, Nike’s vice president of corporate responsibility, who explains that “risk management” and “reputation management” through multi-stakeholder partnerships is the best way solve problems. A deeper discussion of Nike’s corporate philanthropic strategy might reveal how, as is shown in Kathryn Moeller’s The Gender Effect (2018), these kinds of engagement strategies often enable corporations to expand their legitimacy and reach while maintaining the global business practices that exacerbate conditions of poverty and vulnerability. Though Brest and Harvey claim that their book is value-free, the desire to avoid confrontation is a common philanthropic value, often upheld in consequential ways over the past 100 years.

The individual improvement approach to poverty alleviation has been one strategy commonly used to avoid confrontation with industry and mainstream institutional power brokers. The story of Jane Adams provides important insight into how funders have played a moderating role in translating activist stances against poverty into individualist and behavioral theories of social change. In 1889, the same year that Carnegie published his Gospel of Wealth, Progressive activist and settlement house worker Jane Addams founded Hull House with a similar concern about rising inequality in American industrial cities. Hull House was a residential education center that provided opportunities for urban migrants to support their families through cooperative childcare, cooking, savings, and cultural and artistic programs. At the time, this was an innovative approach that encouraged people to improve their own conditions instead of asking traditional charities for assistance. Yet Addams also engaged Hull House residents in action research and organizing to pressure corporate and legislative reform of working conditions, wages, and rights for the rapidly expanding population of immigrant factory workers. In other words, for Hull House, individual improvement was an important link in a broader struggle for self-determination, collective action, and broad-scale social change.

Early and significant funders of social research, Carnegie, Russell Sage, and Rockefeller, all funded the popular Progressive Era survey research on increasing urban poverty initiated by Addams’s settlement house workers. For Addams, the process and results of conducting research was deeply connected to building the community capacity to organize for change. But, of course, none of the funders mentioned above funded Addams’ more confrontational labor-related education or community organizing efforts that threatened the circumstances that allowed industrial capital to thrive. At a time when industrialists increasingly feared urban unrest among the growing immigrant low-wage labor force, philanthropists hoped that the social welfare research and migrant self-help aspect of Addams’ strategy would serve two purposes: to hopefully alleviate poverty and to protect industrialists from political upheaval in the increasingly impoverished American city.

Ethnographic and social science research on the behaviors of poor people has played an important role in the development and political negotiations of philanthropic strategy. Brest and Harvey also suggest, though uncritically in Chapter Four, that ethnographic and academic research helps funders understand “whose behavior needs to change in what ways to achieve your outcome” and in “figuring out how to help beneficiaries change their behavior.” Although she refused a full-time faculty appointment at the University of Chicago based on her critique of the Rockefeller-funded research agenda, Addams eventually became a popular lecturer there and her more palatable ideas directly informed a neutral iteration of behavioral poverty programming and eventually urban renewal. With a grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, the Chicago School sociologists, led most prominently by Robert E. Park and Ernest E. Burgess, transformed the structural political economy analysis of Addams’s era into a social-psychological “urban ecology” theory of social dysfunction in urban neighborhoods, cementing the move away from confronting industry and towards addressing social disorganization and behavioral deviance.

One University of Chicago graduate student, Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation, criticized the urban ecology approach of the Chicago School. Alinsky re-politicized American poverty action through his own organizing in the Back of the Yards area of Chicago’s Southside, a poor neighborhood centered on the meat packing industry in Chicago popularized in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle. Founded in 1940 and eventually funded by the decidedly less risk adverse Field Foundation (though I learned about Field’s political limits when conducting research on the California farmworker movement), Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation focused on neighbor-to-neighbor resident organizing, building individual leadership and institutional power to demand equal resources, opportunities, and political reform.

Another set of activist-scholars, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, also critiqued the dominant philanthropic-social science theories of the day, proposing that individual “deviant” behavior (juvenile delinquency in particular) was not the cause but rather the result of poverty. They proposed that youth’s lives were best improved by collectively mobilizing for legitimate opportunities.

In keeping with the trend described above where philanthropic-social science interventions transform collectivist or structural political-economy theories into individualist poverty interventions, Ohlin and Cloward’s opportunity theory was picked up, funded, experimented on, and eventually neutralized by the Ford Foundation in the 1950s. During the mid- to late 1950s urban poverty was exacerbated by rising unemployment, redlining, automation and changing industries, unequal educational and hiring practices, and declining housing stock. In the wake of a widely-critiqued response to these shifts in the form of “slum clearance” and urban renewal programs, Ford Foundation’s Paul Ylvisaker launched a series of comprehensive poverty related initiatives. The largest included the Great Cities School Improvement Project, Richard Cloward’s Mobilization for Youth, and the Gray Areas Project, which became models for the American War on Poverty launched by President Johnson in 1964. At the center of each of these initiatives was the participation of the poor in individualistic behavioral self-improvement and leadership development, theoretically to engage in decision-making on matters of most concern in their own lives.

Each of these Ford Foundation initiatives failed when the foundation’s behavioral theory of social change reached its own limits. The 1959 Great Cities School Improvement Project made one-year grants to ten city school districts. Although the project initially targeted curricular revisions and teacher training for poor urban schools, Ylvisaker had broader goals. He was optimistic that a reformulated agenda that incorporated the urban poor as stakeholders would build consensus and ease some of the mounting tensions in the inner city. However, the predominantly Black parents brought together in the initiative’s programs were most concerned about racial exclusion from the housing and job markets—issues that the project refused to address. Like Great Cities, Mobilization for Youth mandated youth training and civic participation as a solution to juvenile delinquency in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood. However, the Ford Foundation discontinued the program when the local staff organized to challenge district bureaucracies and school officials. In these instances, one of the main contradictions of individualistic and behavioral philanthropic theories of change is revealed: improving the individual capacity of the poor often ends up threatening the social, political and economic infrastructure that foundations are usually not prepared to change.

In the mid 1960s, when tensions in the inner city were rising, Ylvisaker was aware that critiques of racial discrimination and unequal opportunity structures were at the heart of the growing turbulence. Based on past experiences with the initiatives described above, he also knew that at this time his board of trustees would not be comfortable framing any Ford Foundation project around race. In an effort to present (to the emerging social movement organizations) and obscure (to his board and to other philanthropic interests) the central issues of the time, Ylvisaker framed the 1964-1966 Gray Areas Project with the behavioral barriers that prevent southern Black and Appalachian migrants from assimilating and integrating in the northern city. This time the Foundation required the formation of networks of new and existing nonprofit organizations to collectively form education, community development and neighborhood safety programs funded and managed by the foundation. Again, the aim was to help people improve their own conditions by becoming active, responsible citizens and partners in an experiment in multi-stakeholder community development.

The Gray Areas local programs were quickly defunded when partners, such as the Black Panthers and leaders in the Chicano movement, took their individual improvement efforts to the political bargaining table and demanded control. Ultimately, Gray Areas’ theory of social change echoed an assimilationist ideology historically articulated by white liberals during the Reconstruction Era that promoted safety, discipline and educational achievement as a means of mobility into the middle class. Karen Ferguson’s book Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism shows how through these tentative alliances Ford made significant contributions to watering down Black power ideology towards the new ‘color-blind’ racial liberalism seen today. At the time, this condoned funding approach sat in clear tension with the economic justice theory of change promoted by both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, which called for group, over individual, empowerment towards universal and international human and economic rights. The lines between a solely self-improvement behavioral approach to poverty alleviation and a more radical stance on self-determination that challenges structures of oppression and imperialism are still negotiated among racial justice organizers, advocates, and funders today.

Such historical moments do not prove that wealthy donors are “bad,” of course. Rather, as Brest and Harvey state at the end of the book, they suggest that theories of change developed by those at the top present a limited vantage point (and of course political will) from which to develop thoughtful and bold theories of change and corresponding strategies for impact. And yet, Brest and Harvey do the equivalent of whispering this caveat by including it simply in the afterword.

Throughout much of Money Well Spent, the authors advise their funder audience on how best to articulate their perspectives and achieve their own societal goals tactically or instrumentally, such as through the useful Theory of Change and S.M.A.R.T. Goals tools shared in Chapter 3 or the Preparing to Open for Business tips in Chapter 7, though spend little time asking readers to investigate their own roles in creating these problems and the fullest extent (or limits) to which they are prepared or willing to address them.

To this first point, the authors do identify industry’s responsibility in producing social problems. However, they do not explicitly ask their funder audience to consider the problems created by the production of their own wealth and privilege (as some innovative donor networks like Resource Generation, Solidaire, and Thousand Currents boldly suggest). And so, thinking through these two main omissions from Money Well Spent, the one strategy tip that I would add to the many provided in the book is that aspiring donors interrogate the limits of their own views, perceptions, and financial interests in solving society’s most pressing problems. I would also suggest that they work in close partnership with those most impacted by the problems they aim to solve.

In keeping with the behavioral turn in philanthropic theories of change, towards the end of Money Well Spent, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey share one of their favorite variations on the global poverty “teach a man to fish” cliché by offering, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he’ll sit all day in the boat drinking beer.” For those who add my additional strategy tip of self-investigation and allyship, we might instead proclaim, “The man already knows how to fish but the fish are dying because the water is polluted by the company that made the wealth we aim to use to teach him how to fish differently. Maybe we should first stop the company from polluting the water!”

-Erica Kohl-Arenas

Erica Kohl-Arenas is Faculty Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, and Associate Professor of American Studies at University of California, Davis. She is the first recipient of The New School’s award in Outstanding Achievements in Social Justice Teaching, and earned her PhD from the Social and Cultural Studies in Education program at the University of California, Berkeley. Kohl-Arenas’ book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016), analyzes the history of philanthropic investments in addressing farmworker and immigrant poverty across California’s Central Valley. Prior to her graduate studies, Kohl-Arenas worked as a popular educator and community development practitioner in a variety of settings including urban public schools, immigrant nonprofit organizations, and coal mining regions. 

Suggested Reading:

Karen Ferguson. 2013. Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

Michael Katz.  2013. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Peter Marris and Martin Rein. 1973.  Dilemmas of Social Reform: Poverty and Community Action in the United States (Chicago: Aldine).

Kathryn Moeller. 2018. The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development. (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press).

Alice O’Connor. 2002. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in the Twentieth Century U.S. History. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press).


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