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The Moral Case for Change

It’s time to put the moral life back into our philanthropy and politics.

Note: This article is adapted from a speech by Gara LaMarche called “The Moral Life of Philanthropy,” given at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 2010. You can read the full speech here

Baby with flag photo with Victoria Bernal

Photo by Victoria Bernal.

In 1965, Bill Moyers, then a young White House aide, talked with President Lyndon Johnson about a pending bill to provide retroactive Social Security payments to older adults. According to the White House tapes, Moyers argued for the retroactivity clause on the basis that it would boost the economy. But LBJ believed in it because it was the right thing to do, simple as that. “By God,” he thundered, “you can’t treat Grandma this way. She’s entitled to it and we promised it to her.”

Reading this exchange made me feel a longing for a public debate driven by morality and a sense of right, rather than metrics, polls, and focus groups.

As President of The Atlantic Philanthropies, I have had a growing discomfort about the way foundations—as well as many of the causes we champion—stray too far from talking about their principles when describing what and why they do anything.

My sense is that philanthropy today—whether it’s philanthropy on an institutional level or an individual making a donation—is too often driven by metrics often unconnected to core values. And our debates about politics today are too often driven by what message will “win the day,” and what argument will be effective, rather than what is right.

It’s time to put the moral life back into our politics and our giving.

The Moral Case for Reform

Rigor and moral clarity don’t need to be in tension. Indeed, the first often serves the second. From the political right, we’ve seen quite a few morally driven initiatives, like abstinence-only education, that thrive despite their failure and their advocates’ disregard for facts. I don’t propose that progressives who are concerned about social justice, equity, and human rights abandon their attention to metrics or ape the right’s tendencies, but I think we have something to learn from them.

BOOKjimcrow.jpgThe Return of Jim Crow: How today's criminal justice system takes up where slavery and segregation left off.

I learned this lesson working on crime and punishment issues at the Texas Civil Liberties Union in 1984. Texas had lifted a moratorium on executions and the legislature reacted to appalling crimes by lengthening sentences and extending the death penalty to additional offenses. Human rights advocates had little success talking about the Constitution and our core principles. 

So I shifted our argument to pragmatic terms: it wasn’t cost-effective to lock up so many people, and it was counter-productive to strip prisons of educational and training programs since inmates would get out without skills to earn an honest living. They’d be forced back into crime. 

This was a sound argument, but it wasn’t enough to make lasting change. Our message of fiscal sanity was briefly effective, at a moment when Texas was struggling financially.

But today, the Department of Corrections houses four times as many prisoners as in the 1980s. Our pragmatic arguments lost sight of what was right, and failed to build a reform constituency based on principle. Perhaps we could have argued that the death penalty was simply oppositional to our values—or that the horror of sending someone to death accidentally was just too great to chance it with anyone. Or more simply, that our morals call us to value redemption more than retribution. 

In March 2010, we celebrated the passage of U.S. health care reform. The Atlantic Philanthropies was the largest funder of Health Care for America Now, a national coalition that worked for two years to achieve comprehensive health care reform. While the law is not perfect, it is the most significant advance for the social safety net in America in over 40 years.

The President deserves enormous credit for sticking with this battle despite counsels of caution. But he erred, with a few exceptions, by framing the health care campaign largely around cost, not morality and justice. 

The lives of workers living in the shadows should trigger outrage: this is not who we are as Americans.

Pragmatic arguments for reform—the unsustainable cost of health expenses and insurance rates, the burden on taxpayers and business—are important. But, the Tea Party protesters have dominated the discussion since its passage because our side lacked a sustained appeal to morality, and failed to state repeatedly the injustice of consigning fellow human beings to death because they lack health care.

We see this too in the debate around immigration reform. There is a mismatch between the scope of injustice and the principal arguments meant to spur action. Millions of people, driven by desperation to remain in the U.S., live in the shadows; they are stateless workers without whom big sectors of the economy would collapse, but who have no political rights or voice. Homes and factories are raided, children and families deported, and discrimination and police abuse virtually invited by laws like Arizona’s SB 1070. This crisis should shock the conscience of every person.

Working in the Shadows, book cover detailWorking in the ShadowsA year undercover in the jobs most Americans won't do.

Yet despite these appalling realities, “fixing a broken system” remains the principal frame of the immigration discussion. But technocracy is no match for the passion of the other side, who, like the Tea Party, are propelled both by economic anxiety and racially tinged discomfort with an increasingly diverse country. 

Instead, why not focus on the fact that immigrants are human beings just like the rest of us—but who are often treated as less than human? The lives of workers living in the shadows should trigger outrage: this is not who we are.

We should also frame the argument around how central immigration has been to our story as a nation. Recently one of our grantees found that, across a wide range of demographic groups, audiences are moved by arguments that strike at the core of their identity as Americans. The desire of immigrants to embrace the American dream should engender respect and understanding. These are lasting arguments that shift the foundation for policymaking. 

The Moral Life Of Philanthropy

The world of philanthropy needs to strike a better balance in arguing for change. Most philanthropic mission statements focus on “solving problems” or “addressing issues,” but shy away from stating explicit and sometimes politically volatile goals. Even the foundations comfortable supporting public policy advocacy tend to avoid discussing it or making any effort to knit their disparate issues into a larger frame.

Many foundations are increasingly influenced by public opinion research, which has a strong place in any social change effort. But if the research is not closely hinged to first principles, to fundamental values, it cannot be a tool for meaningful change.

Pollsters have told me that the best way to get public and legislative approval of progressive measures on immigration or prisoner re-entry is to cast it in punitive terms—requiring undocumented immigrants to become citizens or forcing prisoners to get a high school equivalency diploma—tilting a majority toward reform. But this approach accepts pernicious stereotypes that will come back to haunt us.

In our everyday lives as activists and donors, are we more likely to support an organization based on its tax status and effectiveness rating, or based on our passion for its goals and principles?

In 1976, the philanthropist Paul Ylvisaker wrote: “Philanthropy [must] move out of fixed and safe positions into more independent, flexible and far more exposed stances between the contradictory forces that are generating tension, and without the resolving action of some agent such as philanthropy, will otherwise tear nations and neighborhoods apart.”

And yet foundations today too often are entrenched in those fixed and safe positions. If they speak out, it is more likely to be about the preservation of tax exemptions and payout rates. During the Bush years, it was hard to find a voice in American philanthropy raised in protest of tax cuts or the wars.

In recent years, a number of foundations have formed what might be called an “effectiveness movement” in philanthropy, with the idea that good intentions are not enough. Atlantic has been deeply engaged in this movement, supporting the creation of organizations like The Bridgespan Group and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to help nonprofits and grantmakers set smarter benchmarks and assess impact. But this movement is now finding that there is no real constituency for effectiveness, as such. Like our politics, it’s easy to see why: values move people to enthusiasm and action, not sterile concepts of metrics and results. 

Finding the Story Again

This challenge extends into our everyday lives as activists and donors, as well. Are we more likely to support an organization based on its tax status and effectiveness rating, or based on our passion for its goals and principles?

Henry David Thoreau: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”

The 1960s was the last great period of progressive progress in the United States. From Nixon on, all Presidents have played on the same field, set by the political right. Republicans get to speak in grand moral terms about freedom, and Democrats become problem-solvers, subjected to ferocious criticisms questioning their patriotism, morality, and commitment to security abroad and at home.

The United States is in a toxic political moment. For progressives, who recently thought that the political arc of the last 40 years might finally be bending, it is beginning to seem clear that we have failed again at communicating a coherent and compelling worldview. We have policies, programs, bills, and many accomplishments that make life better for many people. But we are in danger of losing the gains we have made because the story has no moral.

We need to reinvigorate our moral discourse. If we want to be successful in bringing about lasting social change, we must keep our focus on what we want to change, and why. In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”


Gara LaMarche author picThis article was adapted for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, from a speech titled "The Moral Life of Philanthropy" given by Gara LaMarche. Gara is President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

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