Democracy in Action: 3 Indicators that Philanthropy will Generate Social Change

I recently had the privilege of hearing Karl Zinsmeister speak at the CEO dinner at the annual Florida Philanthropic Network summit. Karl Zinsmeister oversees all magazine, zbook and website publishing at The Philanthropy Roundtable. He has authored 12 books, including What Comes Next? How private givers can rescue America in an era of political frustration, which was the theme of his talk.

Zinsmeister’s thesis is that today’s social and political divisions are nothing new and that solutions to the country’s problems will not come from government or the political process but from private citizens, led by philanthropy. He cites numerous examples from American history where private action – not government – addressed and solved pressing social problems.

  1. Political Dysfunction is Nothing New

Zinsmeister’s examples are instructive. As for political dysfunction, he notes that the fInauguration of Andrew Jackson (1829) was a drunken, destructive riot and that, at various times in the 18th and 19th centuries, Congressional debate descended into fistfights or worse. Governments have, at times, been misguided or dysfunctional or both. The secret to America’s advancement is that it has always been a country with many independent centers of power. Who can doubt that in a free society most decisions are made by “the market” and not government?

  1. Philanthropy has Historically Catalyzed and Led Social Progress

Philanthropy is one of American’s “independent sources of power” and has the ability to catalyze and lead social progress. Zinmeister notes that both the Abolition and Temperance movements came from philanthropy and volunteerism.

In 1833 two brothers, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. The Tappan’s were successful New York businessmen, who abhorred slavery and set out to change American attitudes towards it through worship, education and organizing. They were ostracized, defamed and bullied. The political establishment of the tday and the press were not sympathetic and turned a blind eye to mob violence against anti-slavery advocates and the destruction of their houses. But the brothers kept going and built a movement that culminated in the abolition of slavery less than 30 years later.

Similarly, it was philanthropic and charitable action, the Temperance Movement, which addressed another American disgrace. The Temperance Movement is often portrayed as quaint and even silly. History tells a different story. In the early 1800s alcohol consumption was rampant and destructive. Americans drank “from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn”, observed one historian. The cost to American society and its economy was enormous and the effect on individuals and families was tragic. The alcohol industry had powerful proponents and lobbyists but was nonetheless defeated by a coalition of philanthropists and volunteers.

  1. Philanthropy Catalyzes and Leads Social Progress Today

We do not have to go back to previous centuries. Look at what the LGBT movement has accomplished in a relatively short time. As for direct action – as opposed to policy – consider this. Philanthropist George Soros and his gift of $50 million are estimated to have saved more lives in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war than the combined interventions of all national ggovernments plus the United Nations. Current examples of philanthropic leadership can be found in the fields of education, research, job training programs, public works, micro-lending, foster care and adoption.

History tells us that we should not sit back and wait for government to solve all of our problems. It can’t. Nor should we wring our hands and complain. Yale professor Stephen Carter has referred to philanthropy as “democracy in action”. Our action is needed and we must keep going.


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