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Indiana University

Irving Kristol's Legacy for Philanthropy: Ideas Matter

September 21, 2009
By Leslie Lenkowsky
Courtesy of The Chronicle of Philanthropy

He also helped start the careers of too many young people to count, including me. Irving, as he was always known to his friends, recommended me for my first job in the grant-making world, directing the program of a New York foundation.

Less well-known (and understood), however, is the impact he had on philanthropy. Most of Irving’s efforts went against the direction its leaders were heading. Yet, they not only accomplished a great deal, but also left a significant legacy, which today’s grant makers would do well to heed.

One of his achievements was to increase the diversity of the philanthropic world where it most mattered: in its intellectual range.

During the 1970s, at a time when foundations and other groups focused on increasing the race or gender of their boards, staffs, or grantees, Irving called attention to the narrowness of their political and social views.

No matter their gender or race, people who worked in philanthropy increasingly espoused, he wrote, the opinions and values of a “new class,” well-educated and brimming with big ideas, but out-of-touch with how American society really worked and what Americans really cared about.

As a result, though backed with copious resources, their efforts were apt to fail, or even worse, cause real harm, as the Ford Foundation had done in an ill-conceived school-overhaul experiment in New York in the 1960s.

Irving did not just criticize philanthropy. He also played a key role in establishing or advising a number of influential nonprofit magazines (including the one with which he was most closely associated, The Public Interest), as well as foundations (like John M. Olin and Smith Richardson), think tanks (most notably, the American Enterprise Institute), educational organizations (such as the National Association of Scholars), and advocacy groups, all of which provided homes to “dissident” members of the “new class,” whose work was generally overlooked and underfinanced, if not scorned, by the majority of the grant-making world (and increasingly, higher education).

Thirty years ago, with William E. Simon, the former Treasury Secretary, and others, Irving founded the organization now known as the Philanthropy Roundtable, which was meant to provide an arena for discussing serious ideas about what grant makers could do about poverty, education, arms control, and other subjects of interest — without becoming so aligned with government as to be indistinguishable from it.

At the time, as those of us who served on planning committees for meetings of the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, and other groups quickly learned, tolerance for such “politically incorrect” thoughts was in short supply. The roundtable’s gatherings provided one of the rare places in the philanthropic world where they could be heard and debated, as they still do today.

Ironically, among the biggest admirers of the kind of philanthropy Irving helped inspire have been left-wing groups in the nonprofit world, such as the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. In a series of reports, it acknowledged that despite being outspent by liberal foundations, conservative grant makers had a greater impact on public policy in the 1980s and 1990s.

It attributed this to better coordination, a greater willingness to provide organizational support (rather than just program grants), and other details of how these donors operated. But it missed, perhaps deliberately, the most important reason, the one that Irving understood from the outset: philanthropy can only be successful if it is based on realistic ideas, a lesson that contemporary grant makers should keep in mind.

Closely related is another part of Irving’s legacy, a remarkable speech – recently republished in Amy A. Kass’ collection, Giving Well, Doing Good (Indiana University Press, 2008) — in which he reminded philanthropy of the importance of caution in how it defined success.

Delivered at the closing session of the 1980 annual meeting of the Council on Foundations, the speech warned grant makers about “the sin of pride,” the temptation — of which, Irving felt, philanthropy had to be particularly wary — to believe it has the obligation and ability to make more far-reaching changes than it really does. “Doing good,” he said, is a passion, “a noble passion …. And all passions have to be controlled.”

But far from lowering their sights, foundations and other donors, he argued, had set them too high, seeking, for example, to improve education rather than just establish lots of good schools.

The problem with such outsized aspirations is not only that grant makers rarely know how to achieve them. Just as critically, in a world in which many others — notably including politicians — have their own ideas about what should be done and those who are presumably to be helped may not always appreciate the assistance, philanthropy has no special authority to realize its goals.

Despite the riches at its disposal, it is simply another party – and a private one, at that – seeking to have its views heard and adopted. Unless it can curb its “passions,” the result will be frustration at best, and at worst, a willingness by philanthropy to mesh itself with government, with consequences that will be unpredictable and quite possibly, damaging to the interests of philanthropy itself.

With the White House now enlisting philanthropic partners to promote “social innovation,” and foundations joining forces with government agencies to promote programs in education, health care, and other issues, grant makers seem well-advanced to succumbing to the temptation Irving warned them about. If there is any chance of their turning back, looking again at the clear and insightful thoughts of Irving Kristol, as well as his legacy of accomplishment, would be a good way to start.

Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and a regular contributor to these pages. His email address is