Sunday, November 27, 2011

Philanthropy: Past, Present and Future

The book, “Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History,” teems with illuminating case studies and object lessons relevant to the present and future. One chapter in that book, “Faith and Good Works: Catholic Giving and Taking,” by Mary J. Oates, has applicability well beyond the subject explored.

“Church charities of the 19th Century,” says Oates, tended to be local, ethnic and highly autonomous in character. “ To prosper, these charities had to “develop a cadre of loyal friends who were emotionally and financially invested in it. Thus, benevolent society officers, sisters, and clergy offered varied opportunities for parishioners of every social class to contribute voluntary service, as well as money, to the cause.”

The incorporation of volunteers into the workings of the institution “reflected an ingenious division of labor between the laity and the religious orders, as well as an efficient way to allocate limited monetary resources,” she says. “Through it, a working-class church was able to reach out to thousands of needy persons and to address a wide range of social problems. By 1900, the Catholic Church was supporting more than 800 charitable institutions and educating approximately one million children in tuition-free parochial schools across the country.”

Yet the sense of local autonomy became so strong, she says, that it led to intense competition among charities providing similar services. “As charitable institutions grew in number, local citizens – especially those in urban parishes – found themselves beleaguered by institutional appeals,” says Oates. In the face of growing criticism, “bishops across the country moved quickly to centralize charity fund-raising within their dioceses. They immediately outlawed most charity events intended to benefit individual institutions and asked Catholics instead to support diocesan charities by contributing to a single annual collection….This consolidated approach, parishioners were advised, would reduce pressure on institutional boards of directors to raise funds, and it would also benefit local citizens” by ending “a continuing stream of charity appeals throughout the year.”

Further consolidation of authority took place during the Great Depression when the Church saw the need to collaborate with the government to address massive social challenges. But government support meant Catholic charities had “to meet externally imposed eligibility criteria and standards.” Directors of the diocesan charitable bureaus, therefore, “replaced their volunteer staffs with paid professional social workers who would make certain that the charitable institutions qualified for public funding.”

By the 1930s and 1940s, Oates says, charity reformers were warning the Church that “a bureaucratic charity structure and dependence on government funds would inevitably weaken grassroots commitments.” But their words went unheeded, and, by 1984, government funds represented the largest portion of Catholic charity budgets.

In the 1950s, the Church witnessed an upsweep in the size and number of major gifts but, says Oates, “many very rich Catholics had little enthusiasm for giving anonymously, especially for projects that the hierarchy rather than they themselves identified as worthy of support. They preferred to give publicly and to designate their gifts. In return for major financial gifts, they thought it entirely appropriate that the church publicize and reward their benevolence with coveted papal titles and other high ecclesiastical honors.” This approach, while yielding significant gifts, led many Catholics to question the growth of secular incentives and the decline of democracy in Catholic charity.

“Although the American Catholic community has traditionally been very generous,” Oates says,” its reputation for benevolence has faded somewhat in recent years. Among religious denominations, the Catholic Church currently ranks near the top in the average household income of its members. Yet, relative to income, individual contributions to the church have fallen steadily since the mid-1960s. Nor does the record of Catholic giving today compare favorably with giving by members of other religious denominations. Although there is no consensus on what has led to this slump, one contributing factor is that American Catholics still have little say in how their financial contributions in annual, diocesan-wide campaigns for the support of the church and its charities are distributed. Any explanatory factor is that parishioners have little opportunity for direct involvement in the church’s charities.”

Many lessons for philanthropy-seeking organizations, it seems to me, can be drawn from Oates’ scholarship. Foremost among them are:

1. Philanthropy reaches its highest expression when it arises from, and is sustained by volunteers based in the communities that they seek to serve and improve;

2. Those that enlist and train large numbers of volunteer, then entrust them with significant operational responsibility, ensure a greater delivery of service through the effective management of limited resources, and by providing rewarding outlets for those volunteers’ time and talents, create the conditions that cause them to give a greater portion of their treasure;

3. The urge to control, whether in the name of local autonomy or organizational efficiency, whether to feed ego and seek credit, runs counter to the spirit of philanthropy, which Rotarians have captured perfectly in their motto, “Service Above Self;”

4. Bureaucracy is not a function of size but of an attitude that assigns itself the right to decide the good people “should do” rather than enabling and empowering what good people are already doing or striving to do; and

5. Over-indulging wealthy glory-hunters sacrifices moral dignity, the lifeblood of a rich culture of philanthropy.

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