Thinking about Philanthropy: Part 1

I would like to pose a question and then, slowly, with your help, answer it.

The question is: What is the role of Philanthropy in creating The Good Society?

For our purposes, let’s focus on organized philanthropy and then narrow even further to look at private and family foundations: How should foundations like the Dodge Foundation think about what they do in relation to the concept of The Good Society?

Of course, the question begs another: What do we mean by The Good Society? That’s what people in the world of schools and curriculum design call an “essential” question, because it doesn’t have a single right answer but the pursuit of an answer can be profoundly educational.

It strikes me that if a foundation is interested in the question, its answer will be very important indeed. It will likely determine the direction of the grantmaking as well as the strategies employed to reach the foundation’s goals.

So, mindful that there will be multiple, nuanced visions of The Good Society, let’s look at one of them and see how it affects our thinking about philanthropy’s role.

My source is The Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar and more specifically James O’Toole’s book The Executive’s Compass. (O’Toole is Research Professor at The Center for Effective Organizations at USC; he was Vice President of The Aspen Institute and now serves as The Mortimer J. Adler Senior Fellow there.)

The Aspen Seminar is built around important thinkers in Western political science and social philosophy, presenting them as part of an ongoing “great conversation” about three essential questions: What is The Good Life? What is The Good State (government)? and What is The Good Society?

O’Toole locates this conversation on a Map of competing values, which looks like this:

These are all important cultural values. But as the map suggests, they can be in tension, if not outright conflict, with each other. There will always be trade-offs between and among them. You can certainly imagine any one of them being at the center of a foundation’s efforts, and their aspirational nature is evident when O’Toole refers to them as “dreams:”

Dream #1: Liberty. The Libertarians believe in absolute political and economic freedom. There is a high value placed on rugged individualism, entrepreneurship and free markets.

Dream #2: Equality. The Egalitarians see social costs as well as benefits to a free economy. They value the concepts of justice and fairness. They care about people being left out or left behind.

Dream #3: Efficiency. The Corporatists believe in economic growth, progress, and constantly improving standards of living. They value the creation of wealth through the most productive and efficient applications of science and technology.

Dream #4: Community. The Communitarians believe a high quality of life is more important than a high standard of living. They value people as ends, not resources in industrial processes. They value both face-to-face community life and the idea of a worldwide community of humankind.

When this map was put on the wall on the last day of the Aspen Seminar, it was instantly controversial. But let’s run with what it suggests:

  • that The Good Society achieves a balance between and among these values;
  • that The Good Society is not a point on the map but rather an area on the map – probably a circle;
  • that within the circle, these opposing values can be pursued simultaneously and can enhance each other.

O’Toole writes that the question that “bedevils modern democracy” is: Can The Good Society be created in a world of conflicting values? Perhaps the question bedevils modern philanthropy as well. I go back to where I started and ask a modified version of my original question: If it is possible to imagine The Good Society as being somewhere on this map, what is the role of Philanthropy in creating, supporting, and sustaining it?

Like I said, let’s answer this slowly. Between now and my next entry, I’d welcome your observations about:

  • where on O’Toole’s “compass” you would place various specific foundation efforts you admire;
  • what changes or enhancements, if any, you would suggest for his model;
  • and how you think viewing The Good Society in terms of competing values might effect what foundations do.