The Magazine

Blessed to Give

The art of philanthropy, as written in literature.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Giving Well, Doing Good

Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists

Edited by Amy A. Kass

Indiana, 490 pp., $50

One of the perennial discussions among philanthropists is whether philanthropy is an art or a science. Employees of nonprofits--like those in such comparable service professions as social work, nursing, or teaching--are always trying to hone the tinsel tools of social science to make what they do seem professional, measurable, scientific. One of the debates over philanthropic professionalism is whether having a master's degree in nonprofit management is a good idea; another is how and whether grants should be evaluated--and whether or not the evaluations are useful.

The countervailing view is that philanthropy is an art, and efforts to make it seem "scientific" waste time and money. The champions of philanthropy-as-art argue that while you can measure how many poor people take a job-training class, you can't calculate how many of these students decide to adopt good work habits, or determine that working is a better use of time than sloth. They believe that the art of giving money away--particularly to small and struggling groups that can't afford professional grant writers--can't be taught from a textbook.

Both the artists and the scientists could learn a great deal from Amy A. Kass's fine anthology. Giving Well, Doing Good includes many papers, commissioned for the book, from eminent scholars; but mostly it is a literary anthology of stories, essays, and plays. Kass's key insight is that today's philanthropists have a lot to learn from the great writers of the past.

Kass teaches at the University of Chicago and is a fellow at the Hudson Institute (full disclosure: Hudson published my book, Great Philanthropic Mistakes). Her goal is that the excerpts will "illuminate fundamental questions about the idea and practice of philanthropy, questions of great importance to philanthropy's future." And those excerpts are wide-ranging: Authors include Plato, Lao Tzu, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and E.M. Forster. There's even science fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." Kass is especially diligent at unearthing obscure writers whose work deserves more exposure: The writing of Gordon Weaver, whose 1972 story "Haskell Hooked on the Northern Cheyenne" is a hilarious critique of strident fund-raising letters, particularly impressed me.

What the excerpts show is that nearly every problem philanthropists face today is age-old. The work of a program officer, coolly sifting the worthy from the unworthy, may seem, to the outsider, a little prissy; but W.S. Gilbert made this point better in Princess Ida:

I'm a genuine philanthropist--all other kinds are sham.

Each little fault of temper and each social defect

In my erring fellow-creatures, I endeavor to correct .  .  .

But although I make myself as pleasant as I can,

Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man

And I don't know why!

Program officers also have to worry about when to stop a grant. How can a philanthropist ensure that his wealth won't lead to perpetual dependency? Here a close study of Henri Barbusse's "The Eleventh" (1918) might be in order. Barbusse posits a "palace-hospital" that every month admits 10 nameless beggars, who spend a month living like kings, only to be evicted at the end of the month and replaced by 10 other beggars. The protagonist ultimately quits the hospital because he cannot close the door to worthy recipients of aid. Was his action the right thing to do? What could the hospital do to make its charity more humane? Discuss.

Still another problem foundations face is how much they should give. One of the endless debates in philanthropy is whether or not foundations should increase their grantmaking more than the current annual mandate of 5 percent of endowment. (For decades this "payout debate" has been one which philanthropoids find exciting but which induces catatonia in most people.)

Yet philanthropists ought to consider the timeless advice of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, in a sermon included here: Christians should "gain all you can .  .  . but this it is certain we ought not to do; we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor (which is in effect the same thing) at the expense of our health." Second, said Wesley, "save all you can" while not spending "merely to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life." Finally, we should "give all you can." God, Wesley taught, "placed you here not as a proprietor, but as a steward. .  .  . For all that is laid out in this manner [of giving] is really given to God."

Nearly every excerpt raises deep and timeless questions, and donors who finish Amy Kass's collection will gain a deeper understanding of their calling--and, perhaps, discover new writers to enjoy.

Martin Morse Wooster, senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is the author, most recently, of The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of 'Donor Intent.'