Scrivner Award Speech
Council on Foundations Annual Conference
May 1, 2001
The James Irvine Foundation
From a position of received privilege, how should one behave so that it might be put to productive use as people are learning to get better at their work? This is a central question facing philanthropy, and it figured centrally in preparations for today. How to say something appropriate and helpful under such extraordinary circumstances?
There was the problem that no single foundation's body of work could possibly measure up to being singled out.
There was the thornier problem that the only extent to which the work might be worthy of mention is the extent to which it is being done, not by the Irvine Foundation, but by others in the community. The vision and implementation of the Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship are collective, and so is any attendant honor.
The preparations for today, therefore, were troubled, until the following idea struck. I decided I had received a postcard from the Council that read: "Dear Mr. McGarvey: Congratulations. You have been selected at random to say a few words at Tuesday's luncheon among your colleagues about the common work. You might want to keep the theme of the Annual Meeting in mind, and, in the spirit of Bob Scrivner, try to be a bit risk-taking in your comments. Good luck."
That helped. And so I would like to spend a few of the Irvine Foundation's fifteen minutes speaking today, not too scandalously, I trust, about what brings us all together in Philadelphia.
Very awkward to speak politely about money in public, and yet it is so awkwardly at the heart of our culture.
Here is Sophocles, in his Antigone. Creon is speaking, ironically misinterpreting the noblest of motives for the basest: "Money! There's nothing in the world so demoralizing as money. Down go your cities, Homes gone, men gone, honest hearts corrupted, Crookedness of all kinds, and all for money."
We also have Timothy from the new Testament: "The love of money is the root of all evil."
Striking a new note, we have Ben Franklin, to an artisan, presumably a Philadelphia artisan: "Remember that time is money."
We have F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway: "The rich are different from you and me." And Hemingway's reply: "Yes, they have more money."
We have, in what's become a watchword of its time, Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein: "Follow the money."
And, in the phrase that has captured perhaps too exquisitely our own recent past, Cuba Gooding, Jr., to Tom Cruise: "Show me the money."
Money. Central to American society and central to our work. For we also, of course, have Andrew Carnegie, 1889: "The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and the poor in harmonious relationship."
We think of modern philanthropy as an invention by America, brought to life by giants of business during the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century. Arguably, philanthropy is not only by America, but of America, participating along with our society in the inherent tensions and contradictions of the twin ethics by which Americans live.
On the one hand, liberty; on the other hand, equality. On the one hand, the right to an entrepreneurial freedom that enables individuals to amass great wealth. On the other, the responsibility to share that wealth for common good in the community.
These two ethics co-exist in great tension and complex contradiction. Neither can take pure form in the presence of the other. The argument I'd like to make is that, inherently and inevitably, philanthropy lives out the tension and the contradiction.
On the macro level, just how complex is the relationship between America's liberty, its equality, and its philanthropy is being played out before our eyes right now, living as we recently have been through this second Gilded Age. As though we were watching the beak of the finch evolve in real time, we have seen three things happening, simultaneously and inter-relatedly.
One, tons of money has been generated. (On the McGarvey block of little fixed up Victorians in San Francisco, the last home was purchased for $1.3 million, cash.)
Two, the wealth has concentrated, and the income gap between rich and poor has jumped strikingly. (In Los Angeles at this moment, the richest 50 individuals hold the same assets as the poorest 2 million, the approximate number of Angelinos living below the poverty level.)
And three, remarkable new philanthropic resources have been created (philanthropic assets nearly doubled in the last five years of the century, and the newest philanthropists have set out to solve the problems of poverty and inequality behaving as new money, by definition, always must, by throwing out the old rules and reinventing from its own experience.)
On the micro level, too, in the program work, philanthropy partakes inherently in the tension and contradiction. In that work program people move back and forth between the boardroom and the community. The boardroom-the metaphorical residence, if you will, of liberty-and the community-the residence of equality-are the two ends of our familiar uneven playing field. We know what creates the elevation difference.
To extend the hypothesis at the heart of this argument. Money is a powerfully precise instrument for doing one thing-creating more wealth. (Ben Franklin knew this-it's in "Poor Richard's Almanac"). But money is a blunt and unwieldy tool for creating positive social change. Only one thing can do that: when regular people act together to create the change, educating one another and developing relationships with one another along the way. When people learn, intentionally and collectively, how to get better at making things better in society.
Learning takes place when the two legs on which it walks-theory and practice-get into healthy, iterative, give-and-take interaction with one another.
Here is the case. Our task in philanthropy is to encourage authentic, active learning toward positive social change among people in the community. In this effort we use the only tool we've got to support the interaction of theory and practice. And the tool we've got works inherently to separate theory from practice and distort their interaction.
What are the characteristics of the distortion? Back to the uneven playing field. In the boardroom, at the entrepreneurial freedom end of the field, the language of choice is the language of theory. It's natural. To their directors program people need to make the arguments conceptually.
There are at least two distorting boardroom influences, both associated with elevation difference, both caused by the money.
We don't acknowledge it regularly in public, but in the boardroom the program work can often be steeply uphill. It's the nature of the work. The buck stops in the boardroom, quite appropriately. It is in the boardroom, therefore, where the risk-taking often stops. That, too, is appropriate. But the distortion is that the language of theory can sometimes obscure what is really going on when the risk-taking stops: the inherent and unavoidable tension between liberty and equality.
The second distortion obtains when we look the other way, downhill toward the community. We know this to be true-we program people get well-practiced in speaking the language of theory with our boards. We can create compelling conceptual packages and decorate them with colorful bows. The danger is that up in the boardroom you can't tell from the wrapping whether there is any real relationship between the packaged theory and actual practice in the community. If there is not much relationship, then when we visit our theories on the community, as we will, we at best waste people's time; at worst, we do damage to the work of positive social change.
How should we enter the community, the residence, metaphorically, of equality, where the language that is spoken is that of practice? The problem here is not that anyone in the neighborhoods has any reluctance to grapple with theory. Quite the opposite; they hunger for it. But the very tool that gives philanthropy entrée to encourage the interaction between theory and practice-the money-brings with it, once again, distorting influence.
Our privilege in the community is that we are treated as though we are rich. We're not. (Because your speaker grew up a few miles from here, there is half a table full of family and old friends today who can attest to the humble origins of the McGarvey family; though we'd probably get the most entertaining version, with rolled eyes, from the eighteen-year-old San Franciscan in the next generation.) But treated as though we are wealthy, we program people get our greatest leverage. We are granted access to relationships with community geniuses. This, though, is another thing we are not-geniuses. So we never earn our way into the relationships on equal footing.
There is no way around it, and the question is, given the inherent distortion, how can foundations behave in order to encourage people to learn from and with one another, in order to enhance the interaction between theory and practice? How can we accomplish something that money can't buy, that our money automatically hampers?
An answer is that we can learn along with our community partners. Granted access to knowing them, we can introduce folks in the community to one another, put inquiry at the center of the collective relationship, and participate in the collective problem solving.
Learning our own way into this role, we could do worse than to model our behavior on that of the community leaders who are helping low-income Americans build social capital through civic participation-the community organizers, the popular educators.
The organizers and popular educators make it their business to get to know people, to understand their dreams, their frustrations. They start, that is, where people are. They listen carefully for the problems and issues that different people identify in common, for the things that more than one person would like to change in order to improve quality of life in the community. Having identified the common problem, these leaders follow a simple rule: Any problem is an opportunity to bring people into problem solving with one another. Any issue that people have identified in common is a powerful "market force" to bring those people out of their living rooms and into meeting rooms, where they can educate one another and get to know one another as they build something together.
The best of these community leaders are self-effacing. As the work gets going, they disappear into the woodwork. Their job is to encourage other leaders to emerge and grow. They encourage people to build relationships with one another through the shared experience.
Importantly, they provide a framework of intentional learning within which the community problem solvers use research, analysis, and evaluation, marrying theory to practice. The organizers and popular educators are always encouraging people to try their best to get better at what they are trying to accomplish. They get people to ask these questions of one another: What change are we trying to make? How are we trying to do it? Why do we think that's the right way to make the change? How will we know whether we're on track, so we can continually do our best to improve?
Modeling ourselves on this kind of community leadership, we in philanthropy can never eliminate the distortion that our money brings. The tension between liberty and equality is inherent to the human condition; we can't eliminate it. But the argument here is that this is possibly the best way to reduce the distortion, the best way to encourage people to partner theory with their practice and make the changes in society that only they can make.
Let me finish, if I may, on a practical note. I don't know whether you were listening carefully earlier, or whether you read the fine print about the Scrivner Award, but it comes with money. $10,000. The Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship and The James Irvine Foundation have done some collective problem solving about the best way to limit the distortion of these dollars and leverage them toward the common work in the California's Central Valley. With help from two new policies at Irvine, we were able to turn the $10,000 into $50,000. Foundation employee gifts are now matched on a three to one basis. That got us to $40,000. In addition, employees at Irvine are now permitted to make discretionary grants, $10,000 for a person of my tenure. That took us to $50,000.
Invested wisely, $50,000 will produce $2,500 on an annual basis. The Central Valley Partnership will use that $2500 as an annual, perpetual award, designed and implemented by them, honoring each year an immigrant who has promoted civic participation among Valley immigrants, a man or woman who exemplifies the qualities cited by the Robert W. Scrivner award: creativity, risk-taking, vision, principle, personal commitment.
Irvine will make a matching grant of $50,000 to the endowment for the award, so that there will always be an additional $2500 annually to administer the program.
What a privilege it is for the Partnership and Irvine to put the Scrivner Award to use in the community in this way. What a privilege it is to speak among you today and to accept the Award on behalf of the people in California's Central Valley whose efforts it honors. What a privilege to be engaged together as we all are in this common work of philanthropy. Thank you.