MONUMENTS OF PHILANTHROPY decorate and enrich American life.
Libraries, hospitals and art museums bear the names of benefactors from
the earliest days of our nation. The generosity of donors — large and
small, named and anonymous — is responsible for breakthroughs in
medical research and services, advances in literacy and improvements in
education and environmental protection. Philanthropy today is putting
eyeglasses on young American children and delivering water to far corners
of the globe.
Moreover, philanthropy is being called upon now more than ever.
Confronted with increasingly intense pressure from conservatives to curb
the size of government, Americans, especially the poor, may need to rely
on individual generosity to pay for assistance that was once supported by
taxes. It is a testament to generations of generous Americans that some
services continue to reach those in need: An immigrant facing deportation
may turn to Los Angeles Public Counsel for advice that may preserve his
family; students otherwise unable to buy books, laptops or cellphones may
find their dreams realized at their local library or on computers in their
classrooms supplied by patrons committed to their good fortune. To those
in need, these are blessings beyond measure.
And yet, is it right to rely upon philanthropy to do what we once
expected of government? Should the cost of education fall upon the few
who are generous or upon the many who benefit from a literate and
sophisticated society? And what of the power of philanthropists? Is it
right that those who have succeeded in business or who have inherited
fortunes should set the course of educational reform or medical research?
Since taxes also support philanthropy, should taxpayers have a say in what
is given and for what purposes?
These are the questions at the heart of this issue of Blueprint. They are not
meant to challenge the notion of philanthropy; to the contrary, Blueprint’s
offices are on the sixth floor of a school named in honor of Meyer and Renee
Luskin, two of this city’s most generous and public-spirited benefactors. Their
leadership and financial support are essential to this magazine. The journalism
on these pages would not exist without them.
Rather, the questions at the heart of this issue are meant to examine the
relationship between philanthropy and public policy, a nexus much in the
public eye recently. An example: Should contemporary America respect the
philanthropic impulses that once helped erect statues of Robert E. Lee? Are
his qualities of leadership enough to warrant commemoration in a public
square, given his role as the commander of an armed resistance against the
United States in defense of slavery? The generosity of those whose money
helped build the statues need not be questioned in order to wonder whether
the public good is served by their donations.
Public good and private generosity usually coincide. Ground-breaking
advances in health and the institutions that discover them both rely upon
the good will of wealthy people who give to medical research. We are wiser
and healthier because of that confluence of values, and there is a place for
both generosity and public priorities.
That’s the place we set out to examine here.