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Good-for-nothing Samaritans; charities are as dependent on federal handouts as the worst welfare abuser.


Infrequently, far too infrequently, I have what I like to call a "Matt Scudder" day. This ritual observance is named in honor of a down-at-the-heels retired New York City policeman, a recovering alcoholic, who is the hero of a series of engaging detective novels by Lawrence Block. One of Matt Scudder's idiosyncrasies is that whenever he receives a fee he immediately tithes in the form of $1 contributions to every panhandler who accosts him amid the beggarly bedlam of the streets of Manhattan. My charitable impulses are, alas, far more limited. But I do like Scudder's notion of giving folding cash to mendicants, regardless of their pitch or persona, regardless of whether they will use the money for dinner or drugs, regardless of whether they have the right stuff to joint the "deserving poor."

One reason I find this scattershot method of individual philanthropy so appealing is that I know something about how major charitable institutions operate; I studied them for an abortive foundation-backed project in the mid 1970s. My research led me to the impolitic conclusion that the best way to aid the poor and the downtrodden in America was to pay one's full share of taxes--and the devil with the cherished charitable deduction. I discovered that with the exception of a few admirable, religiously motivated organizations like the Salvation Army, most charities were infinitely more interested in leveraging private donations to obtain federal grant money than in directly aiding the afflicted. How much more alluring it was to attend conferences on voluntarism and the independent sector than to minister to the needs of drunks and druggies who practice loathsome hygiene. No, the majority of the money was not squandered on new levels of bureaucracy and lobbying state legislatures. Instead, the once-voluntary agencies mounted overly ambitious programs that could not survive, even at a reduced level, without steady federal support. As a result, most United Way agencies, in particular, became as addicted to a regular government checks at the most inert welfare mother.

This 1970s habit of institutional self-aggrandizement left the charitable sector woefully ill-equipped for the rigors of the Reagan revolution. Just as the time when private caseloads were soaring, the charities themselves were reeling from draconian cutbacks in their own funding. This double whammy made a mockery of the nostalgic right-wing myth of a nation of voluntary soup kitchens and modern-gay Lady Bountifuls.

Having failed at the task myself, I kept waiting for the inevitable book to be written about the limitations of American charity and philanthropy. Sure, there were a few slender volumes recycling familiar tales of charity fraud and warning givers to beware of organizations that spend 70 percent of their money on fundraising, but such fly-by-night operations are the easy targets, the kind of subjects that mobilize the talents of blow-dried investigative reporters on local TV news shows. What has always been needed was a serious book that would look at the most reputable charities and foundations (the sort who recruit the likes of Liddy Dole as their presidents) and cut through the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the paid publicists of this vast eleemosynary empire. Such a mythical study would look at results instead of lofty claims. It is, as I know first-hand from youthful folly, a difficult world for the gimlet-eyed outsider to crack. And that is why I am sympathetic to Terese Odendahl's intentions in Charity Begins at Home, (*1) even as I am disappointed by her awkward and uneven efforts to depict the self-interested behavior of what she calls "the philanthropic elite."

It is hard not to share Odendahl's ill-concealed rage as she watches multimillionaires smugly avoid taxes by endowing symphony orchestras and prep schools, while not deigning to notice social problems more serious than the absence of a Van Gogh in the Tulsa art museum. Billions for Harvard, while the homeless must depend on the vagaries of my Matt Scudder impulses. But beneath the veneer of a serious academic study, Charity Begins at Home is really a chatty account of Odendahl's adventures as a nervous outsider among the mega-rich and their retainers. Her tone is often that of the scruffy graduate student trying to describe the folkways of society matrons and philanthropic patrons to her academic friends over a potluck supper and a bottle of California jug wine.

Unfortunately, Odendahl pays an unnecessarily high price for her access to the charitable crusades of the wealthy. She shields the identity of her upper-crust informants so completely that she transforms them into bland composites spouting boilerplate sentiments. It is easy to imagine her frustration, after groveling for months to set up an interview, to have her research subject endlessly gush in full society-page blather, "I am so fortunate. I have just had the most wonderful things happen to me, and the most marvelous experiences with the people at the foundation." To her credit, Odendahl admits that "many of those interviewed began by giving only pat answers to our questions but as the interview progressed became more thoughtful and drank." True, but such improvement was solely a matter of degree. The book continually jumps from these hard-won, but also hard-to-read, interviews to a series of heavy-handed feminist conclusions such as, "In general, female philanthropists are not liberated. Wealthy wome risk losing more economic security and status than other women in contesting a system that privileges them."

Having failed to delve behind the surface banalities of the Forbes 400, Odendahl eagerly devotes two lengthy chapters to philanthropy she feels comfortable with: the politically left-wing and feminist foundations that have been established since the early seventies by the guilt-ridden children of trust funds. The problem is not with the goals of these funds (though pressing for neighborhood social change does seem a bit quixotic these days), but the attention given to a dissident movement of such limited scope: According to Odendahl, the alternative fund movement that began with George Pillsbury and the Haymarket People's Fund has distributed only $50 million nationwide over the past 15 years. But this digression is a prelude to Odendahl's own sense of personal betrayal when she, with radical banners waving high, went to work for a group called the Women's Fund of Colorado. Alas, the wealthy women of Denver and Aspen turned out to be just junior-league liberals; they balked at Odendahl's commitment to fund lesbian projects. Even after these Rocky Mountain lows, Odendahl cheerfully insists that she remains "committed to the idea that women of all classes can work together toward a better life for everyone."

Whew, I almost lapsed into a bit of nonconstructive criticism there. But, in truth, such cynicism is not fair. Odendahl set out to write a difficult book, gamely struggled and ultimately failed. Ideally, she should brush herself off and try again, jettisoning some of her naive and painfully politically correct radicalism, as well as her self-defeating deference to the rich who are charitable enough to receive her. As for myself, I promise to hold Matt Scudder days a bit more often now that the weather has turned cold; it's not much, but at least I know into whose hands my money is going.

(*1) Charity Begins at Home. Teresa Odendahl, Basic Books, $22.95.

Walter Shapiro is a senior writer for Time and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Title Annotation:critical review of Teresa Odendahl's 'Charity Begins at Home'
Author:Shapiro, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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