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Soft-Headed Benevolence, Hard-Headed Help
November 6, 2000

By Leslie Lenkowsky

Three times each year more than 300 boys and girls from urban neighborhoods in New Jersey, age seven to 18, gather to compete for prizes in public speaking. Their sponsor is an organization called New Jersey Orators, founded in 1985 by a group of African-American business executives who were concerned about the inability of young people interviewing for jobs to express themselves well. The program is run by volunteers on a minuscule budget, with funding from foundations, businesses and the United Way. Almost all the young people graduate from high school and 80% go on to college.

New Jersey Orators embodies the qualities of the best sort of philanthropic giving, as we are reminded in "What Makes Charities Work?" (Ivan R. Dee, 242 pages, $24.95) a valuable collection of essays from the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Traditional American charity, writes Myron Magnet in his editor's introduction, once sought "to inculcate the missing and crucial virtues and skills that would allow . . . recipients to succeed on their own, to take advantage of the manifold opportunities that American society provided." Unfortunately, he adds, many of today's charities no longer do.

Take, for instance, Catholic Charities USA. Brian Anderson shows in his essay that this once exemplary institution, instead of promoting personal responsibility and self-reliance, now devotes much of its effort to lobbying for new government handouts to the poor—and against work-oriented welfare reforms. Or take the Neediest Cases Fund, sponsored by the New York Times. Heather Mac Donald shows how this century-old charity, which used to help widows and orphans and other people down on their luck, now directs its funds toward those whose tough circumstances are very much of their own making (e.g., through alcohol and drug abuse, having children out of wedlock).

Similarly, as Ms. Mac Donald argues in another essay, lawyers have revised their notions of pro bono work, preferring to litigate changes in public policy, especially through class actions, instead of simply giving legal representation to those unable to pay. In one famous pro bono case, which resulted in a court decision requiring New York to provide shelter for anyone who needs it, the result seems to have been a textbook example of supply creating its own demand: a dramatic increase in homelessness (and of course skyrocketing costs to the city).

How different these dysfunction-abetting efforts are from the stories of the charities that do work! Perhaps the most moving in the book is Howard Husock's description of the efforts of a Jewish family agency to "save" his father, largely by placing him in a home infused with the middle-class values of the group's patrons. William J. Stern finds a similar insistence on behaving responsibly—backed by the prospect of divine retribution if one strayed—in the work of 19th-century organizations like the Society for the Protection of Destitute Catholic Children. Kay Hymowitz highlights an admirable program in East Harlem today, called Strive, that seeks to inculcate so-called soft skills: "not just the familiar problems of initiative and punctuality but a more subtle understanding of the manners and values of an alien mainstream work world."

Although "What Makes Charity Work?" offers examples of the Boy Scouts and other groups that continue to espouse traditional ideas of virtuous conduct, its thrust is to note the obstacles to doing so today. Many charities now depend on government grants and contracts, leading them to adopt the welfare state's nonjudgmental ethos and to participate, out of self-interest, in public-policy debates. Meanwhile, some of the nation's most prominent foundations (e.g., George Soros's Open Society Institute) ask the charities they support to focus on social and political change rather than to respond directly to the needs of those they are trying to serve.

The biggest difference between today's charities and yesterday's, however, lies in what they believe. Since the 1960s, Mr. Magnet notes, the nation's leading philanthropic institutions have come to ascribe poverty and other social ills to impersonal forces: "to an unjust economy and a racist society, to 'the system.'" As a result such institutions have seen increasingly less merit in trying to work with individuals and even some danger, insofar as concentrating on personal conduct pulls attention away from the supposedly more important political and economic problems that the needy face.

It should be kept in mind, though, that even as many of the nation's charities are promoting political causes, others buck the tide. Like New Jersey Orators, most of these counter-trend organizations are small, and many are religiously inspired, receiving no government funds—which is why they are often overlooked, except of course by those who benefit from them.

Luckily, too, the ideas of the 1960s have lost some of their appeal. Today even the Ford Foundation is testing ways of encouraging savings and home ownership among the poor. More amazingly, some grant makers and social-service groups are beginning to warm to the idea that the needy might be better off working than merely accepting welfare, and that fathers ought to support their children.

So perhaps things are not so dire. Still, there is a lot of talk at the moment about charities doing more to help the poor in partnership with a compassionate government. No less important, the baby boomers will soon "cash out" and inherit family assets, creating a surge of giving. Thus it is a perfect time to understand better why some charities succeed and others fail. For this purpose and others, "What Makes Charities Work?" is a must.

Mr. Lenkowsky is professor of philanthropic studies and public policy at Indiana University, Indianapolis.

©2000 The Wall Street Journal

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