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Forbes.com

 

The Brother's Keeper Philanthropy Controversy

August 14, 2014

By Howard Husock

It's not often that President Obama faces criticism from the liberal left regarding his Administration's policy initiatives in matters involving race and disadvantage. Which is what makes so notable an opinion piece in the latest Chronicle of Philanthropy criticizing My Brother's Keeper, the President's program, announced this past February, “to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.” That focus was a cause of concern for NoVo Foundation executive director Pamela Shifman and former Schott Foundation program manager Nakisha Lewis, who wrote that Brother's Keeper inappropriately overlooks the “dire straits” of many “minority women and girls”, including “epidemic levels of of domestic violence.”. The article goes further in criticizing Brother's Keeper for “elevating a patriarchal conception of a “good” family—boys of color will grow up to be fathers and heads of households that are made up of nuclear families.”

There is little doubt that both minority males and females are not faring nearly as well as they should in the U.S.—and that both philanthropy and government have their roles to play in improving their educational and economic outcomes. But what makes the criticism proffered by Shifman and Lewis notable is their concern that My Brother's Keeper is sending a signal from the White House to U.S. foundations and philanthropists—to focus one one group at the potential expense of the other. It's a criticism that matters because of the nature of My Brother's Keeper. It's not a federal program so much as an effort by the White House to focus private giving and match it with non-federal government appropriations. As the White House has put it: ”Through this initiative, the Administration is joining with cities and towns, businesses, and foundations who are taking important steps to connect young people to mentoring, support networks, and the skills they need to find a good job or go to college and work their way into the middle class.”

Put another way, the President has put his thumb on the scale used by donors when they decide what missions they should support. Whether one agrees with the views of Shifman and Lewis about family structure or not, they are quite right to be concerned that the White House is throwing its weight behind a select approach. Historically, as I've argued in my book Philanthropy Under Fire, government and philanthropy have operated independently of each other—allowing philanthropy to identify problems government lacks the means or understanding to deal with.

The Obama White has consistently chosen a different approach—choosing, instead, to signal to philanthropy the sorts of causes which should merit support. This has been, for instance, the animating principle of the White House Social Innovation Fund, the Obama Administration initiative mounted through the Corporation for National and Community Service. It invites private donors to match White House-directed funds dedicated to addressing select social ills—ranging from HIV/AIDS to “community-driven initiatives to combat obesity and tobacco use”.

As with those addressed by My Brother's Keeper, these are, without doubt, problems which merit attention. But by signaling what it views as the nation's most important social problems—in effect through executive action—the Obama White House has risked undermining the traditional independence and creativity of private philanthropy (which, it must be noted, has not been all that reluctant to throw itself into the arms of government, or to see its ideas brought “to scale” as government programs, often ineffectively).

The objections to My Brother's Keeper show us even those who may broadly agree with the concerns of the Obama White House can be put off by what can be seen as a nexus of big government and big philanthropy, which favors some causes over others.

It's worth noting that there was a previous President who undertook a partnership with private philanthropy—one described by historian Oliver Zunz (in Philanthropy in America: A History) as “federally-directed philanthropy.” It was tried in the Administration of a President one suspects is not on President Obama's short list of favorite predecessors: Herbert Hoover. And, notes historian Zunz, “it collapsed under the sheer scale of what was needed and under the pressure of conflicting visions of social justice.” The White House executive action to direct philanthropy appears to be leading to just those sort of conflicting visions once again.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2014/08/14/surprising-critics-of-white-house-executive-action-on-philanthropy-the-brothers-keeper-controversy/

 

 
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