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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 Filer commission.

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 1930s.

(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 accomplishment.

(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 influence.

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).


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