Philanthropic Doubts

FOR thirty years the philanthropists of America have indulged in a perfect orgy of charitable activity. They have developed and expanded every form of humanitarian service common to the civilized nations, and have searched the world and their own imaginations for types of moral and physical ailment to which the philanthropies of old were oblivious, in order that they might still further improve society, and have even wider openings for the spread of their social enthusiasms. They have organized to deal with every form of human need, and have established institutions to rectify every variety of human defect. They have had oversight, from the cradle to the grave, of those unfortunates who anywhere along the way have fallen out of balanced adjustment to their environment. Pre-natal clinics, baby-welfare stations, orphan asylums, charity hospitals, penny-saving societies, child-hygiene associations, home-economics organizations, social-hygiene boards, dental clinics, and settlement houses have dotted the land. The socially minded have concerned themselves with the unmarried mother, the crippled, the blind, the insane, the deaf, the traveler, the tubercular; they have agitated for better housing, for home nursing, for backyard playgrounds; they have enunciated a philosophy of the family, developed a technique of case-work, and formulated methods for conducting the philanthropic enterprises which have been generally accepted as an essential part of our organization of society. It has been social heresy to inveigh against or even question the fundamental importance of these charities. Indifferent to a protest so feeble as to be practically unheard, institutions for social uplift have followed our spread across the continent like prairie tumble-weed blown by an autumn gale. But something has happened in the last year or so. The apparently solid support of these societies has shown signs of giving way. The expensive philanthropies, manned by professionally trained arid highly paid experts doing careful individual work with the maladjusted, have been supported by a lavish public. The gifts came from the possessors of old wealth, who had been trained to accept philanthropic obligations as paramount, a sort of first lien on property, and from the possessors of new wealth, seeking outlets for their surplus. The money came comparatively easily. A mushroom tradition of the ethical beauty of dying poor gave impetus to the generous impulses of the donors. Rich Americans have 'gone in' for philanthropy as the English gentleman goes in for sport. Each man has adopted his pet charity, has preyed upon his friends for help, and been preyed upon in turn.

This impulse of giving did not always imply personal sacrifice. 'Give till it hurts' was a slogan developed by the war emergency. In the piping days of peace such drastic advice would have defeated its own ends. 'Give as much as you comfortably can' is about as strong a stimulus as we can stand today. Of late the charitable institutions, perhaps in desperation, have assumed a truculent tone, an air of authoritative activity, of an implied right to our donations, that has robbed its of the grace of generosity. We confess to a harried feeling in the presence of the grim alternatives daily offered to us, of either surrendering our money or accepting a major responsibility for the downfall of philanthropic institutions.

Must we bear the burden of moral obloquy imposed upon us by the anxious philanthropists, or is there some justifiable limit to our charitable efforts to help our less fortunate brethren? May it not be just possible that this revolt of the giving public is not altogether selfish, but is the harbinger of a moral revolution?


A survey of the philanthropic quandary discloses some new elements in the complex. Thousands of families in the past had incomes with a comfortable surplus, which was available for the support of an elaborate system of philanthropies. These surpluses have fallen into the remorseless grasp of the collector of surtaxes. Our national, and only legitimate, community-chest now offers sanctuary to the moneys that used to be lavished on the widow and orphan. This is a consideration that might be easily overlooked, and yet is a factor of significance as a sign of the times. We have seen fit, for the common good, to appropriate from the pockets of our citizens sums so gigantic that they make the large donations of recent years to the cause of philanthropy seem like a tiny star in a giant galaxy.

If we can tax so heavily for purposes of war without raising a word of protest, would it not be possible to do something commensurate for purposes of peace without reaping the whirlwind? The money has passed beyond the reach of the philanthropists. Has the responsibility associated with its former use passed with it? After all, whose duty is it to see that this is a better world? Is it not the natural burden of the people who inhabit the earth not of a selected few, but of all the people? Can we not look forward to a day when our philanthropic obligations will be brought to our attention, not by an appeal from boards of directors, but by a tax-bill from the properly constituted authorities?

Whatever the future may hold for us, the community of the present will no longer support private charities on the scale and in the manner it has clone in the past. We are forced to ask ourselves whether the basis of the philanthropic movement is sound; whether it is doing an essential work; and whether that work can be carried on in the face of a general refusal on the part of the public to back the philanthropists.

What lies at the root of the philanthropic impulse? The moralist would say brotherly love. But it is a love that takes a very different attitude from that we show toward our blood brothers. It could hardly be called friendship, for it assumes no equal give and take. Might it be a subconscious response to the doctrine drilled into a Christian nation, 'Thou art thy brother's keeper'? Or is it an obscure expression of some primitive herd-instinct, coming up with us from the palaeozoic ooze, determining alike the conduct of the Neanderthal Man and of Edith Cavell? The impulse is not only not simple, but is probably extremely complex. There are in it elements of kindly condescension, of a sympathetic fellow feeling, and of ardent generosity.

We can imagine the philanthropist saying to himself, 'Here is a world admittedly imperfect, and here are we humanitarians eager to set it right. What exception can be taken to our urge toward betterment? What if it does perpetuate in our minds and in the community's the differences of man from man? The differences are there, and closing our eyes to them does not eliminate them. We are willing to give our time, our money, and our enthusiasm to bring health and happiness to our brothers who are poor and suffering. It is impossible that the community wishes to repudiate us. We are the exemplars, however imperfect, of the Christian ideal which is the basis of our civilization.'

We have many things to say in reply to him. An enthusiastic friend of a blind man offered to bring another blind man to see him, thinking thereby to give pleasure to both. 'No,' said the blind man, 'I do not wish to meet people on the ground of my infirmities.' Our philanthropist's first handicap lies here. His human contacts are on the basis of infirmities, poverty, ignorance, sin, never on the basis of any mutual interest or responsibility. It is not 'our baby-welfare clinic,' to which we all bring our babies, but 'your baby-welfare clinic,' to which I bring my baby to be told how I should take care of it. It is not 'our home-economics association,' but your home economics club,' to which I am invited to come and learn the wider use of corn-meal.

Environment has perhaps favored you more than it has me; but I also have a contribution to make to our mutual betterment, if you can only bring yourself to count me in. It is not enough for you to love humanity. You must have a delicate respect for the soul of humanity, that sensitive instrument which registers progress in terms of the individual's victory over himself. I do not wish to be lifted up by you or anyone else; I wish to lift myself. Even though the height I attain by my own efforts be not so lofty, the foundations of my character are firmer and are better able to resist the assaults of temptation.

A fastidious respect for our brother's personality makes heavy drafts on our tolerance — too heavy at tithes to be honored. So we fail in our efforts to help, and ascribe our failure to the obduracy of the beneficiary, or to inferior traditions inherited from alien races. We are willing to admit that our municipal government is very bad, but we aver that it is better for us to manage it inefficiently for ourselves than to allow anyone else to manage it for us, however admirable the immediate results might be. When, however, it comes to the decisions of a man's life by which his character is to be built up, if he happens to be poor, we may remove from him the opportunity for choice by a pressure he is unable to withstand. We show a Gargantuan daring in assuming responsibility for lives alien to our own. How much good are we justified in hoping or expecting will come of it? Of course, each reader will instantly think of cases he or she has known in which lives have been markedly altered for the better by contacts formed in philanthropic association. There are perhaps many, but how large do these cases bulk in the total number of individuals dealt with? How do such successes balance the effort, money, enthusiasm, and vital energy that have gone into these attempts at human reconstruction? In our own personal lives, who has influenced us save those whose family relations, social status, and range of interests most closely approximate our own? We should regard as an impertinence, if done to us, the invasion of spiritual privacy that the more tolerant victims of misfortune accept as part of their disability. They act upon our advice if they must, they disregard it if they can, but they preserve untouched the inner citadel of their personality, whence their fighting forces may sally forth once the siege is raised. Could we accomplish as much with as well-bred dignity?

A serious defect, seemingly inherent in the organization of philanthropic effort, is the intense individualism of each unit and the frequent jealousy or disregard of one another. It may be the fault of their virtues, each organization having an almost fanatical sense that it holds the key to human regeneration. To the outsider it looks like a lot of ants tugging from all sides at a dead beetle. The beetle does not move, and the ants use a prodigious amount of energy, to no avail. Cooperation is a word often on the lips of the social worker, but not always understood. Indeed, such fundamental cooperation as has been achieved has usually been accomplished by forming an additional cooperating agency to accomplish it. And yet, duplication of effort or failure to recognize reasonable limits to the number of philanthropic establishments is a spoliation of the whole community.

A more fundamental danger, and one to which the best are prone, is reluctance to let go and cease functioning when the need is past. Vested funds, rooted traditions, personal zeal, often conspire to keep alive institutions which have served their day and whose continued existence is only an incubus on the community. It is a rare board of directors that will admit the failure of its experiment or recognize that changing conditions demand an entirely new alignment if an institution is to fulfill its purpose. Occasionally a day nursery does close its doors and fight for mothers' pensions, or an orphan asylum lets its plant lie idle while it places out its charges in homes; but do not the chimneys of many a mistaken charity pour out the smoke of a high-priced coal on a world that has long ceased to have any need for such an organization? No intrenched idea seems more difficult to dislodge than this passion for a philanthropy for its own sake. Endowments perpetuate what should be only temporary; they give immortality to the normally transitory; until our land is weighted down with foundations and institutions which fetter the free spirit of a changing world.


Are the philanthropic societies doing an essential work? In every community there are the discerning who have eyes to see an evil and imaginations to vision a good that can be brought out of it. They gather round them the few whom they can inspire with their enthusiasm, and try out the new idea. These are the social pioneers, the leaders to whom we all look for guidance. In so far as charitable societies catch the spirit of these adventurers and hold the ideal of their own labor as pioneering, they do a vital work, and in the future, as in the past, will be essential to social progress. But the assumption of many philanthropic associations, that they are to go on forever, that they are as permanent a part of the running of a democracy as the ballot-box itself, robs their effort of much of its significance.

'Yes,' the philanthropist may say, 'that is all very well; but if we do not care for the orphans, who will? If we do not stand by the unmarried mothers, who will befriend them? If we do not maintain day nurseries, how can needy widows go out to work?'

In a civilization so complex as ours it is not feasible that we should depend on these small philanthropic groups to keep the great machine going and the grosser injustices from being done, and it is impossible that we should continue to be mendicants for their bounty. It is not self-respecting for any community to let the few shoulder the responsibilities of the many. What are we going to do about it? The public is bringing the whole matter to an issue by refusing any longer to support private charities on the present scale, whether that scale is regarded as extravagant or not. On the other hand, there remains a mass of good-will, energy, and devotion to the bettering of the world, available for the common service. How can such money as there is, and such energy, be employed to the best advantage? How can what is prescient in the philanthropic movement be preserved, and what is unsocial be eliminated?

If you compare a city which has a full quota of philanthropic societies to care for every type of human sin and weakness with one which has practically nothing, you will not necessarily find any superiority in the more richly equipped. Of course, you may say, 'What would the first city be without the institutions? Its problems are graver than those of the second city, and its evil is held in check only by the activities of the generously inclined.' But are not a community's standard and quality primarily due to its educational opportunities, its living conditions, its civic enthusiasm, its moral standards, its homogeneity of feeling, and not to the efforts that any one group may make to improve any other group?

The status of the philanthropies during the war was a revelation like that made by a dazzling streak of lightning. During those momentous years there were high wages, prohibition, and plenty of work for everyone. The demands on the charitable societies dropped fifty per cent and more. The poor and the sick seemed to be no more with us. The question forced itself upon us, 'Is it possible that the philanthropies have been on the wrong tack, that fair wages and decent living conditions are the basis of a sound civilization, and that the philanthropists are but poulticing a surface sore?' There were some few associations which saw in the light of this great experiment the portent of their own ultimate dissolution. Though of making philanthropies there seems no end, of ending them there seems to be no beginning, so that the total number in existence has not been appreciably reduced by the world-shaking convulsions of the war.

A new orientation has, however, taken place in the public mind toward the philanthropist as the sensitive register of human suffering, and the chief guide to the alleviation of human misery. We are beginning to recognize that the same passion for humanity that inspires one man to lavish money on baby welfare, rescue homes for girls, and Christmas dinners for, the poor makes another man a radical. The impulses in both cases are the same, but the second man is trying to think more fundamentally than the first. His methods may be clumsy and his suggested solution crude, but his aim is to remove the causes of human despair, not to risk the loss of precious time by attempting to modify their tragic consequences.

The philanthropists belong to a class on which the injustices of our present basis of society have not borne heavily. They serve unconsciously as a bulwark of the status quo, for whose defects they are ready and eager to apply palliatives. They are the great menders and patchers-up of society, not the surgeons who cut deep into the festering sore and scrape the bone. They express the tenderness and pity of man, not his reasoning intelligence. Their technique is developed to a high degree of perfection, but their philosophy lags far behind. They know better how to do a thing than why. We must turn to them for methods, the fruit of long and careful experiment; but as yet they have offered us no fundamental basis for the work of human improvement. It is not through their eyes that we shall see life steadily and see it whole.


The interlocutor queries, 'What are we here for?' and instead of being satisfied with the exemplary reply, 'To help others,' invites disaster by persisting, 'But what are the others here for?' Here is the Achilles heel of the philanthropic movement. In the soul of the philanthropist stirs a passion for betterment, a real desire that life shall be more endurable for us all. But in the method he employs he ignores participation by the 'others.' He uses the ways of an aristocracy instead of those native to a democracy.

The major indictment against philanthropy is that it has ignored the opportunities democracy offers for reforms from within. It has distracted our minds and attention from community responsibility for the removal of social defects. It has encouraged us to leave reforms to the activity of self- appointed groups. Its reforms have tended to be superficial, because it has everywhere selected for its leaders those interested in philanthropy, but not in democracy. The typical lover of his kind will pour out money for the starving Chinese though he may hesitate to contribute to campaign expenses for public-school associations. The novice can catch the thrill of teaching folk-dancing to the tenement-house child or distributing bread tickets to the poor; but an offer to pay the expenses of a board of health 'clean-up campaign' requires imagination of a different order.

Yet a great people committed to the experiment of organizing a democratic society fails in so far as it refuses to use the forms appropriate to democracy. Here about us are all the types of community effort that we have so far evolved: boards of health, school committees, overseers of the poor, courts, probation systems, boards of parole, poorhouses, commissioners for the blind, public libraries, departments for the care of defectives, for the care of children, for giving mothers' pensions, for the supervision of public safety, for the treatment of the tubercular, hospitals, dispensaries, parks and playgrounds — and yet how few philanthropists try loyally to work out their problems through this wealth of agencies before organizing associations of their own.

And where is the reformer who ever feels that, once a law is passed and a department created, there is any further responsibility on his shoulders? Yet, if we had the wit to see it, our responsibility is then but just beginning. City and county and state officials are only our leaders; we are the rank and file, who must stand back of them if they are to be truly effective. An autocracy does not need the cooperation of its citizens; it is not organized to depend on that; but the failures of democracy are the failures of citizens to play their part. The governing departments belong to us. Their successes are ours; their mistakes disgrace us. Think what a board of health might accomplish if the citizens made an effort to work wholeheartedly with it! Think what a street-cleaning department might be in a city where every inhabitant felt as responsible for the sidewalk and street in front of his property as for his parlor floor! Think of the quality a community might acquire with a school system which was the pride and anxious concern of every parent in the city!

Where are the members of the community who might have leisure and money to band their fellows together and work unrestingly with the public officials to build the City Beautiful? They are supporting attractive homes for the aged poor, while wages are too low to allow a worker to save for the future; they are establishing asylums for illegitimate children, while public dance-halls are not safeguarded; they are forming classes to teach English to foreigners to whom the evening schools are open; they are spending large sums to teach music to children, while the school department is too impoverished to give a class more than two hours' instruction a day.

These efforts may be good in themselves, but a community must make its investments with some sense of proportion. Enthusiasm for the individual may be a blunder. Suppose that through our failure to carry on home charity individuals do suffer here and there. There are bound to be sufferers at best; but one is blind indeed who does not see that more misery may be saved in the end by the more broadly conceived plan. Even a very slight enlargement of the department for child-care in a board of health would accomplish more for the welfare of our youthful citizens than the work any private society for the care of babies could do in twenty years.

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