The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law
Volume 6, Issue 3, June 2004
Better Together: Restoring the American Community
By Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein
The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism
By Claire Gaudiani
Reviewed by Michael Edwards
Both of these books see civil society–as philanthropy, community, and citizen action–as the savior of the American dream. Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein focus on stories of exemplary civic leaders, while Claire Gaudiani looks more broadly at the role played by philanthropy in mitigating the costs of U.S. capitalism. In seeing voluntary action as the solution to structural problems, these are very American books, and while each has something to useful to say about the state of the nation and the means of addressing its problems, both suffer from a romanticism and lack of critical edge that render them less useful as guides to public policy.
Gaudiani’s book claims that U.S. philanthropy has maintained a “precarious balance between capitalism and democracy” throughout the 20th century by insuring adequate investments in education, workforce development, asset building, housing, health research, prison reform, and many other areas key to achieving broad-based economic growth with social stability. The solution to America’s problems, therefore, is more philanthropy–more precisely, “entrepreneurial philanthropy” that combines “cutting-edge technology with asset building,” “not loans or tax breaks, but gifts.” Unfortunately, the evidence to support these claims is weak. American philanthropy can certainly count on some successes, but no reliable research demonstrates that its impact on the structures of poverty or power in the United States has been anything but marginal. This is not a surprising conclusion, since however impressive the increases in giving have been over the last 50 years, they pale in comparison to the influence of such factors as market forces, globalization, and government policy. Philanthropy does have a role to play in addressing those factors, and how to strengthen its impact is an important component of contemporary political debates, but curbing the excesses of capitalism will require a range of actions by government, corporations, civil society groups, and individuals, which philanthropy may either help or hinder, depending on how its resources are deployed.
In Better Together, Putnam and Feldstein present twelve case studies of successful “civic renewal,” ranging from the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers to the city of Portland, Oregon. Whereas Putnam’s earlier book Bowling Alone (2000) provided a general theory and overview of trends in U.S. “social capital,” this book concentrates on detailed pictures from different communities that purport to show how social capital can be built and utilized in practice to improve social and economic standards. Much in these stories is useful and inspiring–for example, the roles played by branch libraries in Chicago, schools in small-town Wisconsin, activists in the Rio Grande Valley, churches, neighborhood groups, and enlightened corporations such as UPS. The problem comes in generalizing from these experiences in order to achieve sustained improvements on a much bigger scale. Examples of human creativity and commitment can spur others to try something similar in their own communities, but they cannot engender the conditions in which innovation becomes the norm. Social capital will never provide an adequate substitute for companies that pay fair wages to their employees, governments that spend their tax revenues wisely, politicians who protect the public interest, media that blow the whistle on corruption, judges who protect the Constitution, and universities that stay true to their mission and independence. “More social capital” will help to keep these institutions on their toes, assuming it is fairly distributed throughout the population and used for positive ends, but it is the interaction of “agency and structure,” as Putnam and Feldstein put it in their conclusion, that really determines success. That is a much more complicated story, and by far the most compelling. One hopes that future volumes from these writers will tell it like it is.
Michael Edwards is the author of the newly published book Civil Society (Polity Press).