Love and Philanthropy: How Can Humanity's Deepest Emotion Guide Grantmaking?

What's love got to do with philanthropy? A lot, actually. 

In a piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy arguing that "philanthropy must lead with its heart," Jennifer and Peter Buffett, who run the NoVo Foundation, write:  

As humanity progresses through time, our narcissistic tendencies may be getting the best of us. It’s imperative that we see ourselves in a loving relationship to each other and our planet if we are going to survive—collectively and quite possibly individually.

Amen to that, along with their view that we need to stop commoditizing all dimensions of the human experience, creating a world where everything is for sale.

The Buffetts have it right that more love is the antidote to that trend, not to the mention to the plagues of violence, hatred, and fear. It's nice to hear high-profile funders say that out loud, which doesn't happen every day. In fact, it almost never happens. 

But things get a tad fuzzy when the Buffetts turn to explaining how love should drive philanthropy. As they describe it, love means not only providing general operating support, but also multi-year funding. It means listening more closely to grantees, as well as fostering collaborations, not hogging credit, taking risks, investing in people, and avoiding anodyne metrics. 

I'm all for these things, and only wish more funders thought like the Buffetts. But that list of familiar philanthropy reforms doesn't tell us much about how to create the conditions where love can triumph. 

So let's see if we can put some meat on the bones here. 

A more robust love framework for philanthropy might start where the Buffetts do: That we need to push back against a rising tide of self-interest, along with the growing dominance of market values across society—values like competition, choice, and efficiency, as well as a belief that the chips should fall where they may, however harsh the outcomes. 

Love doesn't square with that world view. Because love is about a softer set of human valueslike empathy, compassion, romantic connection, and the unconditional bonds of family. These values aren't irrational or fuzzy, since humanity wouldn't have come this far without them. But they are difficult to quantify or prioritize within any sort of marketplace. And so, as market values have taken over, love has gone on the defensive.

Love has also been put on the defensive by the narcissism the Buffetts mention. And, here, the left has to share some of the blame with libertarians who've extolled self-interest as a great virtue. The "do your own thing" ethos of the counterculture, and the challenge to every form of authority, as well as a preoccupation with individual rights, all helped fuel the rise of more selfishness. Key ideals of the 1960s, stripped away from that era's focus on social justice, merged with the "greed is good" idea of the 1980s to legitimize self-interest and create a new extreme individualism. 

Love struggles for footing in a "me-first" culture, and for obvious reasons. Love is about wewe as a couple or we as a family or we as a broader human community. But often it's not easy to live up to the obligations that come with being part of a "we." It's hard to stick it out in a marriage when the heavy lifting begins. Or to be a parent. Or to be there for your ailing parents. It's hard, too, to give up some of your wealth or time to help other people in need, especially if they are total strangers. 

And what's happened in recent decades is that it's become easier to shirk the hard work of "we." Again and again, we're toldimplicitly or explicitlythat it's okay to focus on ourselves. We "deserve" to be happy, and have what we want, now, no matter the collateral damage from family breakdown or consumer debt or the ecological and fiscal time bombs we leave for future generations. What's more, a generation of conservative leaders have told us to stop worrying about the poor, because they're to blame for their own fate. And while these leaders would never openly say "greed is good," many do preach that society does best when we unleash self-interest, checked only by the wisdom of market forces. 

So how can philanthropy push back against a me-first culture of extreme individualism where market values rule? How can grantmakers create the conditions for human values to dominate and love to thrive?

Here are a few ideas. 

First, funders need to invest in more intellectual work to articulate and defend human values. Many funders tend to take those values for granted, and skip on to operationalizing them in different spheres of society. Even most progressive think tanks engage in little rigorous thinking about the underlying moral assumptions of a good society. Rather, they're just policy shops. 

Not so on the right, where funders have invested heavily in articulating the values frameworks that should govern public life. I used to regularly debate the president of the Ayn Rand Institute, and I was always amazed by how many resources it hadand how well it engaged its supporters in dialogue over political philosophy. A long list of other groups on the right also invest in refining and promoting their core moral principlesfrom name-brand think tanks like Heritage, Cato, and AEI, to lesser known players like the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the Reason Foundation. This monopoly on work to define the big moral picture needs to be challenged. 

Second, funders need to look for places where the human values needed to sustain love are under particular duress or, alternatively, where breakthroughs can be made in advancing these values. The NoVo Foundation has done some of this, through its investments in social and emotional learning, an approach to education that stresses collaboration and empathy. Other funders are also in the SEL space, pushing back against the growing encroachment of market values in education. Elsewhere, we see some funders trying to foster empathy writ large, like the Einhorn Foundation. 

In addition, NoVo has invested heavily in nurturing a kinder, gentler form of capitalism by "promoting healthy and sustainable local living economies based on mutual trust and interconnectedness." Alas, they're working a lonely beat. Most funders don't actually think much about how to temper the inhumanity of capitalism or remake its operating systems. Instead, they just focus on mitigating or cleaning up the messes left by market failures. That has to change. 

Third, funders can zero in the specific spots where the obligations created by love can be so hard to meet. People need a lot of help to be a good spouse, parent, or caregiver to the elderly. We also often need help learning how to give to back to others. Philanthropy can play a positive role on all fronts and, of course, already does so in myriad ways. For example, funders have stepped up to promote paid family leave so all workers can attend to loved ones in times of need. Funders also support a range of efforts to help caregivers for the elderly and, more broadly, ensure that seniors aren't neglected by a cold-hearted society. 

I could go on with more reassuring examples, but can also think of one spot where philanthropy hasn't done so well: Helping couples succeed, and bolstering that most primary of human love relationships—bonds that can feel quite disposable in a consumer "Tinder" culture. To be sure, some funders work in the area of marriage education, but mainly they're on the right, and work of this kind is viewed with uneasiness, if not hostility, in some liberal precincts of philanthropy. That's a problem, given how high the stakes are in strengtheing these core relationships. 

Fourth, funders can support more work to specifically explore the idea of love and advance this dialogue. One interesting example of such work is Transformation, a digital media site started by Michael Edwards, a former Ford Foundation executive, that describes itself as working the beat "where love meets social justice." (Naturally, NoVo is one of its funders.) 

It'd be cool to see more efforts of that kind, along with a wider conversation engaging funders and nonprofit leaders. As Teddy Pendergrass famously crooned, it's time for love