|A Defining Moment in American Philanthropy
Part 1 of 4
This is the twentieth anniversary year of the report of The Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, better known as "The Filer
Commission" after its chair, business leader John H. Filer. The Commission
for two years, from 1973 to 1975, produced the most far-reaching and detailed
report of American philanthropy ever undertaken. Five volumes of specialized
studies by scholars and other experts supplemented the discussions of the
twenty-eight commissioners, whose report and recommendations were published
under the title Giving in America.
The commission was the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller III and several of
his closest advisers. It was funded by Mr. Rockefeller and a group of his peers.
Mr. Rockefeller is also credited with being the source of a new conceptual
framework of American society, a framework which added a "third
sector" of voluntary giving and voluntary service alongside the first
sector of government and the second sector of the private economic marketplace.
A number of important consequences can be traced to the work of the Filer
Commission, most important of which, in my opinion, is the third sector concept.
In addition, the commission provided the initiative to found Independent Sector,
a national umbrella organization bringing together for the first time nonprofit
organizations with philanthropic foundations and business corporations. The
scholarship produced by the Filer commission also generated the intellectual
interest that led to the establishment of the Program on Non-Profit
Organizations at Yale University, the first of the so-called academic centers
which now number more than forty. The dissenting "Donee Report" called
attention to neglected voices of minorities and others, as well as the need for
greater openness and accountability.
Some of us are engaged in a three-part effort (a) to review the history of
the Filer Commission and its work; (b) to assess the development of American
philanthropy "since Filer;" and (c) (my role) to speculate about the
agenda of another Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, a
"Filer II.11 This is a first effort to draft a scope of work for a second
Two related hypotheses:
(1) This is, as a number of people have commented, a "defining
moment" in American history, ranked in importance with the turbulent 1960s
of the "Great Society" programs of President Lyndon Johnson, and
perhaps with the "New Deal" of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the
(2) The impact of changes already undertaken and proposed on American
philanthropy will be profound and far-reaching.
The political debates underway since the dramatic Republican victories in the
Congressional elections of 1994 reflect assumptions that appear to be widely
shared. (These remarks will be littered with customary language like
"appears to be; 11 1 am not yet persuaded that we know clearly the mind and
mood of the people.) Here are four among many assumptions--positions usually
asserted without accompanying documentation:
(1) Government, especially at the Federal or national level, is considered to
be wasteful in its use of resources, arrogant in its ambition, and ineffective
in producing results.
(2) Liberals (that is, the Democratic Party dominant in Congress for decades)
have promised more from government programs than they have been able to deliver.
"The Great Society" of President Lyndon Johnson was more rhetoric than
(3) Social welfare programs, especially, have been harmful to the very people
they were ostensibly designed to help. The poor are worse off despite vast
expenditures to reduce poverty; the poor have become helplessly dependent on
government support; the poor have become "pauperized" (a nineteenth
century term) and have lost initiative and a sense of responsibility for their
problems; family values have deteriorated--indeed, families have broken up or
are not formed at all, and teenage mothers unable to care for their children are
a new social plight--all because of ill-conceived Federal programs. The middle
class, meanwhile, has seen its own standard of living decline -- some argue
as a result of carrying the added tax burden to pay for social welfare
programs. The wasteland known as "welfare" is a broken system urgently
in need of drastic reform. Both parties support a requirement that
mothers work rather than be supported to stay home with their children, a
dramatic reversal of the policy in force since the 1930s.
(4) Public morality has deteriorated. "The media" are often singled
out for special attention, but there seems to be a consensus that concurrent
failure in welfare, education, culture, and religion are linked together. On the
intellectual side, a moral relativism; on the political side, a corrupt welfare
state; on the cultural side, an increase in promiscuity and violence; on the
religious side, an anti-religious hostility aimed at churches and their
And so on. That is, an underlying Slough of Despond in which the public has
become confused about the future, fearful of enemies and conspiracies against
traditional values and practices, and convinced only that the Federal Government
is more a source of problems than solutions.
These assumptions heighten the rhetoric, as my own language here tries to
suggest. That is because the new political leadership in Congress has been
remarkably effective in identifying "liberals" and Democrats and their
intrusive Federal programs as the menace. The new Republican leadership
announced itself with a "Contract with America," a platform published
as a book, promising "revolutionary change." President Clinton and
other Democratic leaders, in office less than two years, were rudely shoved
aside; what little they had to say in response was ignored (and often
substantively confused and inconsistent).