WARNING: debate ahead

Over at PhilanthropyDaily.com, I have a new post on the blunt criticism the Hewlett Foundation allowed itself to hear from Bill Schambra of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

Three cheers for the courage shown by both the foundation and Schambra. The philanthropy world is usually hobbled by a dearth of honest give and take like this.

Soon, former Hewlett president Paul Brest will offer a response to Schambra, who criticized the foundation’s belief that social science is the best guide to grantmaking.

I commented on two themes in Schambra’s critique:

1. How well can social science understand human beings and their communities?

2. Is “strategic philanthropy” new or old?

On number 1, put me down with those who think social science will always be, at best, a highly limited tool for anyone—philanthropists, government officials, et al. These days even physicists who study the building blocks of matter find that the objects of their study are unpredictable, elusive, and mysterious. Human beings are even less predictable.

For more on this topic, try my argument against the effort to make philanthropy into a profession like medicine. That science leads us to question number 2: Is “strategic philanthropy” the cutting edge or the oldest of old hats? The answer lies in another of Schambra’s favorite topics: eugenics.

The “science” of eugenics assumed that human beings could be treated like healthy and diseased cells in an animal’s body. Nowadays everyone is embarrassed at such barbarism, but remember that the champions of social science included most of the first giant American philanthropies now celebrating their centenaries; they jumped on the bandwagon in the 1920s and ’30s, as Schambra has observed.

Nor, as I’ve argued, is our own day devoid of similar “philanthropy”: consider contemporary population control efforts by Hewlett and other foundations.

For the whole article, go here.

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