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The Moral Dimension of Staffed Foundations: An Open Letter to H. Peter Karoff


Do you think of this as the moral dimension of grantmaking in staffed foundations? If so, aren’t you talking then about the moral dimension of a specialized kind of organization? The grantmaker’s ethics are subordinated to the organization’s own imperatives, reporting up to a board. How can the grantmaker, who is supervised by a chain of command, be ultra-ethical, when the organization is committed to a bland strategic approach?

Moral and political theory are twins from the same womb (Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Rouseau).  Economics is their half brother (Hume, Locke, Adam Smith, Marx).  What you are tacitly raising is the moral and political dimension of institutional economic actors, in this case staffed foundations.  How does one influence such non-human agents? By law, probably, or public shame and praise.  Does your work tend then towards a law requiring that x% of grants go to an earmarked list or category of nonprofits? That seems a discouraging and futile effort.  At best it would lead to fewer foundations and new instantiations of political correctness, and new foundation police.

How about the civic dimension? Could you approach this as an insight into social change, how it really happens? Not by simplistic causal mechanisms, nor by strategic intervention in problems, but by inspiring and supporting human agents – citizens – to solve their own problems in active collaboration with committed grantmakers? From Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Peter Block, Tracy Gary, Bill Schambra and others you could draw such a theory of change for complex systems whose agents are themselves moral and political agents, real human beings with minds, hearts, and a conscience of their own, embedded in a community whose fate they influence – as opposed to atomized meat-creatures whose problems will be solved by “the higher ups” as long as we all follow orders as per a plan with many bottomlines and only one method - control from the top. 

When we are all accountable to those who are accountable to no one, as Give Smart glibly suggests, we are truly screwed as a democracy.  Those with money would then buy our government, fix our problems, provide our products and be like gods. That is not merely an ethical or moral problem it is a political nightmare. And we are indeed sleepwalking towards it in hot haste. “Only the super-rich can save us,” as Ralph Nader points out. They could and won't. They are in Nairobi with their kids carrying $20,000 digital cameras, doing a philanthropic travel excursion, backed by a private health plan in which private jets are standing by in case of some health emergency. "Every life has equal value," as Gates Foundation says as its founding ideal. A life is cheaper to save in Nairobi than in Detroit. The poor in Tanzania are more picturesque than in Harlem or East St. Louis. A global company should give back where it draws its cheap labor. As Global Citizens the obligations of the super-rich are clear. They will save those they choose to save, wherever, however, and whenever, maybe. The rest of us can wait and see. Or?