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Reclaiming the Moral Life of Philanthropy

09/27/2010 4:30 PM e14"633
Gara LaMarche, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies

Description: Gara LaMarche believes the nation's charitable organizations have lost "moral clarity," growing more concerned with "the fix, the intervention, than about reasons for doing or caring about what is right."

After many decades laboring in large, private foundations, LaMarche has an intimate perspective on this drift in philanthropic mission and practice. He draws several telling examples from his own experience. As head of the Texas Civil Liberties Union in the mid"1980s, LaMarche failed to sway diehard capital punishment legislators with the "traditional ACLU rights talk," which was viewed either as starry"eyed idealism or dangerous radicalism. He took a radically different tack, and "argued in pragmatic practical terms" that the state couldn't afford to imprison so many, and that depriving prisoners of educational opportunities merely forced released inmates back to crime. This argument prevailed briefly, during a tough fiscal climate, but when the state was flush, it invested in more prisons. The result: Texas today holds four times as many prisoners as it did 20 years ago. LaMarche says "Pragmatic terms didn't work."

His Atlantic Philanthropies poured millions into comprehensive health reform legislation, which resulted in the "most significant advance for the social safety net in over 40 years." Yet the law yielded no political benefits, says LaMarche, because the administration "erred in framing the healthcare campaign largely around costs, not around morality and justice." As a result, there is no match for the backlash -- "ferocious passion" around the issue of governmental and fiscal overreach.

LaMarche also cites immigration reform as a case where philanthropy could have spurred action based on the "scope of injustice," but instead relied on political tactics, such as splitting conservatives, and "fixing a broken system." Technocracy, he says, "is no match for the virulent passion of the other side." Philanthropies have become sidetracked by public opinion and establishing metrics for their performance. They retreat to safe positions, and "erode what moral authority they have" by protecting their own self"interest, especially around tax distinctions.

LaMarche says it is possible to strike a balance between the goals of effective philanthropy, and tackling social inequities and large, complex problems such as climate change. This means speaking out in the current "toxic political environment" with a coherent world view about "what is right," while not getting lost in polling and problem"solving, which risks "losing what gains we've made because the story of which those are part has no moral."

About the Speaker(s): Gara LaMarche leads The Atlantic Philanthropies, an international grantmaking foundation dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. Atlantic focuses on four critical social challenges: Ageing, Children & Youth, Population Health, and Reconciliation & Human Rights. LaMarche joined Atlantic in April 2007 to lead the organization through its final chapter as the foundation plans to disburse its remaining endowment and complete active grantmaking by 2016.

Before joining Atlantic, LaMarche served as Vice President and Director of U.S. Programs for the Open Society Institute, established by George Soros. Earlier, he was Associate Director of Human Rights Watch, and served in a variety of positions with the American Civil Liberties Union.

LaMarche has written numerous articles on human rights and social justice issues for major national publications, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. He serves on the boards of StoryCorps, The White House Project, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and the Leadership Council of Hispanics in Philanthropy.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for International Studies

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