the role of charity

When Hurricane Gustav set its sights on New Orleans, the national political campaigns and parties instinctively started to raise money for NOLA charities. They were following the example set after Katrina, when the private sector contributed at least $6.5 billion (PDF). (And that doesn’t count the market value of volunteer time.) For comparison: the storm did an estimated $150 billion in damage; and the federal government has spent about $120.5 billion on relief (PDF). So the total value of Katrina philanthropy equals about 5% of federal funding.

Classic progressives might say that charity is too scanty, too episodic and unpredictable, and too unfairly distributed to matter much. Our attention should be focused on government aid. High-profile efforts to raise private money are distractions. Democrats should be especially reluctant to raise private money after a crisis, because their role is to put the government under scrutiny.

I only partly agree with this. Federal funding must and did dwarf private funding. But private money is useful for supporting experimental or adversarial activities that the government can’t touch. Also, individual contributors and volunteers create contacts and social networks. One local activist, Tim Williamson, said “Pre-Katrina New Orleans was an insular, closed community. …. Katrina has opened up the networks.” These human connections can be powerful. Finally, private money can support the kind of leadership and coordination that we normally expect of government. Foundations funded the Unified New Orleans Plan, a highly participatory and deliberative process. Compared to the structures created by local, state, and federal governments, the United New Orleans Plan was much better.

Overall, I would say that we need two things for any major public project (such as rebuilding a city): resources and structure. Resources can come from taxes or from private donors and volunteers. The danger of emphasizing private philanthropy is that it can let the government off the hook. But a balance of private and public funds is valuable.

Structure is at least as important as money and work, and we get structure from laws, regulations, and policies. But it is dangerous for official political leaders to set all the rules and priorities. Certainly, official institutions, from the New Orleans school system to the Army Corps of Engineers, made a hash of the job before Katrina. Governmental policies are generally better when citizens help to shape them more than they did in pre-Katrina NOLA. Besides, governmental policies are not sufficient because private institutions (from colleges and universities to churches) need to set policies and priorities, too. It’s important to coordinate across sectors.

The Katrina tragedy showed that government resources were woefully inadequate for the city of New Orleans. But the lack of money wasn’t as big a problem as the poor management of public institutions both before and after the storm. Katrina also proved that Americans are generous with their money and voluntary time. But the money and labor wasn’t spent as effectively as it should have been, because civil society wasn’t adequately organized and participatory.

Ideally, the parties would be debating these issues instead of just dialing for dollars.

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  • Hi, Peter, this is a brilliant post – thanks for putting the pieces together so succinctly. I posted yesterday on my blog ( how disappointing and unimaginatinve it was that the Obama campaign had asked for donations to the Red Cross given their enormous management failures. But your post does much more to question our habit of assuming that philanthropy can solve all of our ills (a capitulation of that the Dems have made to the Reps, in my opinion). Thanks!