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THE NATION | PHILANTHROPY

Building a Better Charity

March 02, 1997|Marvin Olasky and David Kuo | Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, is the author of "Renewing American Compassion" (Free Press). David Kuo is the executive director of the American Compass

WASHINGTON — On April 27, a panoply of stars will enter Independence Hall in Philadelphia for the two-day "Presidents' Summit for America's Future." With President Bill Clinton, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and former presidents leading the way, the summit's modest goal is to usher in an "era of BIG citizenship."

The big question, however, is whether this effort will make a lasting difference, or merely become the latest in a long line of high-profile, high-expectation charitable endeavors that have made little appreciable difference in changing people's lives.

There is much to be encouraged by. Some smart, dedicated individuals who appreciate the need for a community-based, private-sector approach to welfare reform are part of the core team organizing the activities. The corporate community is providing tangible support in the form of services to at-risk youth.

Furthermore, the goal of the summit--to mobilize communities to meet needs of the poor--is certainly important. Representatives from about 100 cities in all 50 states will be invited to participate. They will then be sent home to their communities to organize similar, smaller summits.

Nonetheless, there are signs this summit, like many high-profile charitable endeavors before it, will be long on hype, pomp and promises, and short on change. It starts with a lack of clarity in the summit's mission. Are the summiteers simply calling for Americans to volunteer more time? That could be good, but, as with the giving of money, volunteerism is by itself neutral: Volunteering for a bureaucratic mega-charity that passes out material to everyone, without distinguishing between those in desperate need and those capable of working, may just facilitate more social destruction.

The preliminary invitation list is also suspect. Selected exclusively by United Way area directors, AmeriCorps, the Corp. for National Service and the Points of Light Foundation, it appears that these "community representatives" will largely be members of the same poverty establishment that has been running welfare programs for the past several decades. Some have played footsie with Uncle Sam for so long they fear walking on their own. Some want volunteers to do fund-raising or clerical chores, but believe only those with the "social work" union label can counsel effectively. Some come from organizations with religious names and backgrounds but which have lost confidence in divine power.

Meanwhile, it appears that leaders of charities that have gone beyond handouts to an emphasis on effective compassion--compassion that personally challenges those in need to get their lives in order, and embraces the idea that man needs God to do that--are not being contacted by summit organizers.

In just the past week, for example, we talked to more than a dozen people across the country who run programs that transform people's lives--and not one had heard about the coming Philadelphia story. Specifically, in Savannah, Ga., Henry Delaney leads St. Paul CME Church and St. Paul Ministries with a budget of about $300,000 a year. With that money, he runs two resident drug- and alcohol-treatment houses (one for men and one for women); feeds about 700 needy families a month; operates a Christ-centered school for some of the toughest kids in Savannah, and runs a Bible study every Tuesday for about 1,100 people. His success rates are documented, his programs are transforming lives--and he is not on the invite list.

It is possible that Savannah might not be represented at the summit. It could also be true that there are thousands of service providers across the country who simply could not be invited. But it is a cause for concern that, in the two years or more of planning this event, Delaney's type of faith-based organization does not seem to be at the center of the effort. Yet, community groups that for years withstood the temptation to offer entitlements, build bureaucracies and banish God from their premises stand as the real hope of welfare reform.

There is some evidence that the summit's organizers are beginning to recognize these omissions and are doing some last-minute scrambling to change things. That is good, for unless the summit changes its approach, and quickly, it will end up on the trash heap of charity, along with so many other well-intentioned but ultimately wrongheaded efforts.

So, what must be done? Instead of having the delegations from each city chosen by United Way directors, send out 25 teams of two people to each of the 100 cities to find groups that are truly on the cutting edge of care. It will take a lot of work--and some people may need to be uninvited--but since this is the foundation of the whole exercise, it will be worth the effort.

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