Thinking about Philanthropy: Part 2

It was very gratifying to get three such thoughtful responses to my Part 1 entry posted two weeks ago. All three respondents wanted to use James O’Toole’s formulation of “The Executive’s Compass” (below) as a springboard into other ways to consider the questions of what The Good Society is, and what Philanthropy’s role in it is.

I think they are right, and we should eventually move beyond the “Compass.” In future entries, I want to find and post the graphic Christopher Nye describes, and I want to explore the resonance between his suggestions for what philanthrophy should be doing and the idea of philanthropy having to place itself on a “constrained/unconstrained” axis of the matrix Sean Stannard-Stockton suggests.

Before we do that, though, I want to linger over the idea of “balance” that O’Toole’s “Compass” has inspired in all of us. If The Good Society exists in an area of this map rather than at a point, then it is tempting to imagine that area as a circle, with the meeting of the two axes at its center:

In The Good Society, there would be activities in all four quadrants of the circle, but they would be conducted mindful of the other quadrants; they would not go beyond the limits of the circle, where pursuit of a single value demonstrably harmed another; they would at best work with activities in other quadrants, as Fausto Seville’s call for a three-dimensional model suggests.

But where are we now in finding this balance, particularly in the United States, in 2009? Most people to whom I have posed this question give the same answer: that our “circle” of activity has drifted to the “northeast,” that freedom and efficiency have trumped community and equality/fairness, and that indeed that is the reason for both our current financial meltdown and our dramatic shift in national politics:

Indeed, seen through this lens, much of the public discourse and many of the initiatives in the early months of the Obama administration may be understood as attempting to restore the balance necessary for The Good Society. Of course, there are both political and cultural obstacles to doing that, since the very idea of a balance requires an integrative rather than an oppositional framework for making decisions and advancing values.

But let’s go back to philanthropy. How is its role different from that of a government? What is it able to do that governments cannot? Still using the O’Toole compass, how can foundations metaphorically reach out to that circle of societal activity and pull it back towards that idealized place of balance?

I can think of many Dodge activities that have building community as their focus, and a good number that champion equality and access as their prime value. These activities exert a certain pull to the west and south on this map, which, in the name of balance, are the right directions. But I’d like to close with the idea that if we are thinking about the world with O’Toole’s compass in front of us, the most powerful social investments may be the ones that help people see the whole system, the connectedness of it, the fact that it is hard for potentially polarizing values to flourish except in relation to each other.

Such a view, such a consciousness, will carry with it a quest for balance and a desire to identify and measure outcomes that are not easily quantifiable. It may be the kind of framework the body politic will need if we are ever to achieve the modern, local version of The Good Society — The Sustainable Community.

In the next entry, I’ll offer a couple of examples of Dodge investments that are all about those connections and that consciousness.