Thinking About Philanthropy: Part 1

Posted on by Dodge

David Grant, President and CEO

I would like to pose a question and then, slowly, with your help, answer it.

The question is: What is the role of Philanthropy in creating The Good Society?

For our purposes, let’s focus on organized philanthropy and then narrow even further to look at private and family foundations: How should foundations like the Dodge Foundation think about what they do in relation to the concept of The Good Society?

Of course, the question begs another: What do we mean by The Good Society? That’s what people in the world of schools and curriculum design call an “essential” question, because it doesn’t have a single right answer but the pursuit of an answer can be profoundly educational.

It strikes me that if a foundation is interested in the question, its answer will be very important indeed. It will likely determine the direction of the grantmaking as well as the strategies employed to reach the foundation’s goals.

So, mindful that there will be multiple, nuanced visions of The Good Society, let’s look at one of them and see how it affects our thinking about philanthropy’s role.

executive-compass-bookMy source is The Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar and more specifically James O’Toole’s book The Executive’s Compass. (O’Toole is Research Professor at The Center for Effective Organizations at USC; he was Vice President of The Aspen Institute and now serves as The Mortimer J. Adler Senior Fellow there.)

The Aspen Seminar is built around important thinkers in Western political science and social philosophy, presenting them as part of an ongoing “great conversation” about three essential questions: What is The Good Life? What is The Good State (government)? and What is The Good Society?

O’Toole locates this conversation on a Map of competing values, which looks like this:


These are all important cultural values. But as the map suggests, they can be in tension, if not outright conflict, with each other. There will always be trade-offs between and among them. You can certainly imagine any one of them being at the center of a foundation’s efforts, and their aspirational nature is evident when O’Toole refers to them as “dreams:”

Dream #1: Liberty. The Libertarians believe in absolute political and economic freedom. There is a high value placed on rugged individualism, entrepreneurship and free markets.

Dream #2: Equality. The Egalitarians see social costs as well as benefits to a free economy. They value the concepts of justice and fairness. They care about people being left out or left behind.

Dream #3: Efficiency. The Corporatists believe in economic growth, progress, and constantly improving standards of living. They value the creation of wealth through the most productive and efficient applications of science and technology.

Dream #4: Community. The Communitarians believe a high quality of life is more important than a high standard of living. They value people as ends, not resources in industrial processes. They value both face-to-face community life and the idea of a worldwide community of humankind.

When this map was put on the wall on the last day of the Aspen Seminar, it was instantly controversial. But let’s run with what it suggests:
• that The Good Society achieves a balance between and among these values;
• that The Good Society is not a point on the map but rather an area on the map – probably a circle;
• that within the circle, these opposing values can be pursued simultaneously and can enhance each other.

O’Toole writes that the question that “bedevils modern democracy” is: Can The Good Society be created in a world of conflicting values? Perhaps the question bedevils modern philanthropy as well. I go back to where I started and ask a modified version of my original question: If it is possible to imagine The Good Society as being somewhere on this map, what is the role of Philanthropy in creating, supporting, and sustaining it?

Like I said, let’s answer this slowly. Between now and my next entry, I’d welcome your observations about:
• where on O’Toole’s “compass” you would place various specific foundation efforts you admire;
• what changes or enhancements, if any, you would suggest for his model;
• and how you think viewing The Good Society in terms of competing values might effect what foundations do.

7 Responses to Thinking About Philanthropy: Part 1

  1. Excellent post, David. This “compass map” of philanthropy is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. Another version of this compass can be found at Political Compass, which let’s you map your values along the axes of Authoritarian-Libertarian and Left-Right (with L-R applying only to economic views).

    In a recent conversation with Peter Frumkin, I came to the idea that a good set of axes for philanthropy would be Constrained-Unconstrained and Equity-Excellence (Frumkin’s words, but he did not endorse this construct).

    Equity-Excellence: Striving for equality society vs striving to create excellent organizations, programs, people, etc.

    Constrained-Unconstrained: Believing that we must operated within the current environment and maximize the current state of the world vs. believing that we must reimagine the environment and reform the very shape of our environment.

    The Executive Compass looks solid, but I wonder if there is a set of axes that we could craft that would be more useful for philanthropy and address some of the core values that we struggle with.

  2. What if instead of vectors moving in opposite directions we place liberty, equality, efficiency and community in a spiral so that instead an oppositional framework it is an inspiring framework. Liberty is reframed and transformed by equality so that as we travel up or down the spiral we discover a new facet in our definition. A new face we have never noticed before comes to life. In this DNA model flow and movement is emphasized.
    Our visual arts trips feel like this spiraling movement where individual leadership is shared and transformation is commonplace.

  3. David Grant says:

    Fausto, this was one of the reactions we had at the Aspen Institute — that the “compass” should be three-dimensional instead of two. But no one used the DNA model. I love that. It suggests the wisdom of nature showing us how to intregrate these values rather than juxtapose them. Thanks.

  4. David Grant says:

    Sean, I agree we can have a better set of axes for thinking about philanthropy as opposed to The Good Society, and I like the ones you suggest. I’d like to try them after working through O’Toole’s “compass” and getting to a tentative answer to the question about philanthropy’s role in The Good Society. In particular, we will need to think about whether to pursue that role through some version of what we already do, or through an approach we have yet to invent. By the way, I enjoyed your own website and am really glad to know about it.

  5. Christopher Nye says:


    I’m not satisfied with the O’Toole polarities either. Here’s another way to think about The Good Society and its different “dreams”—I would call them ideals. Suppose we break its functions into three primary areas. These would be the economic sphere; that is, the world of commerce and finance; then the cultural sphere, which includes the arts, education, religion, and the realm of ideas; and finally the area concerned with political and rights functions—government, courts, and concerns that lend themselves to being addressed by laws. The reason this three-way distinction is so important when talking about dreams or ideals is that each sphere has an overriding ideal that makes a good fit. And conversely, imposing the wrong ideal on a sphere of operation yields poor results. Thus, for example, according to Charles Waterman, who develops this distinction in a book called Three Spheres of Society, the ideal for the economic area would be cooperation or brotherhood; and when you think about it, although we have had the notion of competition drilled into us, more gets done through working together and cooperation than through competition. The ideal for the cultural sphere of ideas would be liberty, the chance for the individual to develop in freedom and creativity. And for the political sphere, in which all should stand equal before the law and rights should be protected without regard to race or privilege, the ideal is equality. Thus “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”—sound familiar?

    What happens when the wrong ideal gets applied? Well, when you unleash liberty or unbridled individualism in the economic sphere, it comes out as “Me first,” the Bernard Madoff sort of thing, or rape of the environment. When you apply Liberté to the political sphere, you get the excesses of deregulation and no constraints on individuals’ profiteering at the expense of others. Equality doesn’t work in schools because it comes out as standardization, a creativity-killer, and besides, someone has to be in charge. On the other hand, equality of opportunity is a right and should be protected as such by government. And so on. It’s easy to work out how the ideals need to be matched up to the proper spheres.

    A person who has worked out how a “Good Society” should be organized and how it relates to overweening corporate power and globalization is Philippine activist Nicanor Perlas in a book called Shaping Globalization. His ideal model looks like this.

    [Unfortunately the graphic won’t copy into the blog. It shows at the top nurtured, flourishing individuals contributing to a strong cultural sphere, which in turn feeds and focuses the other two spheres.]

    Perlas feels the cultural sphere should be providing authentic and durable values for the whole society. It could generate nourishing ideas and higher purpose to the other spheres. Instead it is severely hampered. Another diagram, of the present societal arrangement, shows money values dominating and corrupting everything, and an atrophied cultural sphere. Government is for sale; popular culture is dominated by profit motives and cheesy taste, expressed through sex and violence; corporations become hypertrophic and more powerful than many countries.

    The Perlas view, which I share, holds that in a good society these three sphere exist in healthy balance, and that an authentic cultural life has the depth and vitality to shape what counts most in society. What does this imply for the activity of philanthropies? One obvious conclusion would be that they should work to promote a healthy balance. One can in fact see this in the communities attached to Aspen Institute and Chautauqua, where the cultural element gives the whole enterprise its form and a sense of higher purpose. Sound economic decisions get made, but economic values do not drive everything else. Foundations that build a healthy cultural life can reconnect people with their better selves, can help them to experience not just the utility but the poetry in world events and daily challenges.

    To help create a climate in which this is more likely to happen, foundations need to be more daring, more open to radical ideas that have never been tested, less hung up on measurable outcomes within a rigid timetable. They need to be more Dionysus and less Apollo if they expect to ignite creative fires and change systems that have become highly sclerotic. This need not mean abandoning rigor, but rather being open to untried possibilities and outside-the-box thinking.

  6. […] I write my next-to-last blog entry as President of the Dodge Foundation, I am drawn back to the title of my first – not just because I am thinking about this field as I prepare to leave it, but also because […]

  7. […] But as Bok describes well in his book, there is a burgeoning new body of research into well-being, studying why some people are so much happier and healthier than others.  What we learn from it is sobering, because it goes way beyond individual behaviors to cultural assumptions – the way we think about time and work, the accumulation of stuff and the forming of relationships, the balance between libertarian and communitarian values. […]

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