Charity Begins at Home.
by Teresa Odendahl.
Basic Books. 299 pp. $22.95.
Most people regard philanthropy—the giving away of one’s own resources to worthy causes—as a virtue. Yet in Charity Begins at Home, Teresa Odendahl accuses philanthropists of deploying their gifts solely in order to make the world safe and pleasant for themselves. An anthropologist and a consultant to nonprofit organizations, she finds that “For many of the wealthy, charity means preventing infection or decay, maintaining a clean society.” She even goes so far as to find charity a fundamental prop of an unfair social system: “[P]hilanthropy is essential to the maintenance and perpetuation of the upper class in the United States. In this sense, nonprofit activities are the nexus of a modern power elite.”
The very existence of large-scale philanthropy is, of course, a peculiarly American phenomenon. As Odendahl correctly points out, we are unique in the world in freely allowing tax deductions for private charity, and in encouraging (and even expecting) such private charity to accomplish social, educational, and cultural goals that are everywhere else the sole province of government. But for her, government is precisely where such activity belongs: the role of the state in filling human needs is half of a proper public policy; the other half is a far-reaching redistribution of income based on steeply progressive taxation.
Odendahl’s research into the American philanthropy she has grown to dislike began with graduate studies at Yale, where she participated in the Program on Nonprofit Institutions sponsored by the prestigious Council on Foundations and the equally prestigious W.K. Kellogg, Charles Stewart Mott, and Andrew W. Mellon foundations. Her academic researches in the belly of the philanthropic beast were complemented by expeditions into upper-class social life as well: she attended a tailgate picnic at a Yale-Harvard game where “champagne was served in crystal glasses, accompanied by exotic foods.” And while at Yale she also “partook of the high culture” represented by elite colleges and prep schools whose students “learn to value concerts, museums, and the theater. They understand that the great libraries are theirs.”
If education provided Odendahl’s earliest look into the world of philanthropy, her most recent foray seems to have been her brief tenure as executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. In Denver, she found that her board of directors, feminist though it was, tried to ascertain whether she was a lesbian; she decided she did not want to work for a group that discriminated on the basis of sexual preference.
Charity Begins at Home is not about Odendahl’s life experience, however. It consists mainly of composite portraits, based on interviews with 140 subjects, of typical philanthropists and the institutions they fund (and found). Thus Odendahl devotes a chapter each to “Lady Bountiful,” “First-Generation Men and Their Families,” “Elite Jewish Giving,” “The Alternative Fund Movement,” “Wealthy ‘Feminist’ Funders,” and “Advisers and Professionals.” Amazingly, her anonymous, faceless interviewees all speak with one voice. Whether right-wing or left-wing, male or female, Jewish or Gentile, arriviste or old money, they share two impregnable habits of mind: a deep inner conviction that they know what is good for recipients, and an equally firm conviction that the money they give should be taken only from their income, never from their capital.
On one point, Odendahl is very informative. She describes well the inexorable generational progress from the economic and social conservatism of those who were initially responsible for creating the great fortunes to the all-encompassing radicalism of so many of their young inheritors. As Odendahl approvingly reports, old money in new hands has been used to try to change irrevocably the society that made these fortunes possible.
If there is a single factor behind the attitude of young philanthropists, Odendahl identifies it as guilt. Not only do many of them feel they must pay for their fathers’ sins; they establish new charitable institutions, known as alternative funds, to get their peers to pay along with them. Odendahl’s favorite example is the Haymarket People’s Fund in Boston. Named after a bloody Chicago confrontation in 1886 between strikers and police, the Haymarket Fund was started with the help of George Pillsbury, an heir to the baking fortune. The causes it supports are certifiably radical: “AIDS projects, environmental issues, groups organizing around a host of causes on the ‘activist Left,’ such as civil rights and prison reform, as well as peace and women’s organizations, and ‘solidarity work with the peoples of Central America and South Africa.’ ”
What Odendahl finds endearing about Haymarket is not just the radicalism of its beneficiaries; other alternative funds, and even an increasing number of semi-mainstream foundations, are no less admirable in their choice of recipients. Special to Haymarket is the fact that its contributors relinquish control of their gifts to the activists, who then decide how the money is to be spent. Still, even this arrangement is ultimately unsatisfactory, for by the composition of its grant-making panels, and by its insistence on keeping the names of its contributors secret, Haymarket protects the rich from having to deal directly with the poor. This is why, for Odendahl, Haymarket and all the rest of the “politically correct” funds in the end offer only so many variations on a fundamentally unjust, priggish, and self-protective theme. What is needed, she believes, is something bolder.
Odendahl ends with suggestions for restructuring American philanthropy altogether by changing the federal tax code. Although she does not quite endorse a confiscatory estate tax, she does propose government certification of charities suitable to receive tax-deductible contributions; forbidding donors to select the recipients of their gifts; disallowing deductible bequests to any but approved charities; determination by the government of museums eligible to receive particular bequests of art.
The goal of all these changes, of course, is to replace private individuals and groups by public agencies. Odendahl is a great admirer of government, particularly of governments other than our own, and she is none too particular in her tastes:
The material benefits and the extent of control over their own destinies that are provided [to the disadvantaged] by philanthropy are considerably less [here] than in the Social Democratic countries of Western Europe, the Communist East European states, and even some “developing” nations.
Evidently, in the years between her tailgate picnic and the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, Odendahl has not learned much about contemporary developments in the “Communist East European states,” let alone elsewhere in the world.
It would be wrong to dismiss Charity Begins at Home as just another example of a philanthropic expert biting the hand that has fed her. A radical reassessment of philanthropy is indeed taking place in America, and Teresa Odendahl is doing no more than giving voice to the immense weight of leftist political pressure now being brought to bear on donors and foundations alike. What makes her book noteworthy is the candor with which she defines the issue in philanthropy: not the melioration of suffering or the improvement of minds, but the use of other people’s money—whether private or public—to bring about an egalitarian revolution in society of a kind the American people have so far resisted. Whether philanthropy in general today is equally r