Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Eleventh

Today, in a special event for summer interns and young nonprofit staff members, the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal hosted a literary discussion of Henri Barbusse's short story "The Eleventh."

From the Hudson Institute:
On Wednesday, August 5, Hudson Institute's Bradley Center invites summer interns and young staff members to a panel discussion we'll launch in an unusual way - with a story. In Henri Barbusse's 1918 short story "The Eleventh" (required reading - click here to download), a young administrator at a luxurious high-end sanitarium is tasked with its most honored charitable tradition, admitting ten AND ONLY TEN "vagabonds" off the streets to enjoy its lavish accommodations for thirty days. He must turn the eleventh away. Is this task charitable at all, or is it part of some "evil deed," the young man asks himself.

On August 5, the Bradley Center will ask a panel of young "experts": What's it like to be young and on the front in the nonprofit sector? What should this young man do? The panel will feature MINDY HERNANDEZ, formerly of the Carnegie Corporation and currently with Ideas42; EVAN SPARKS of the Philanthropy Roundtable; MELISSA JOHNSON of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; and the Bradley Center's own KRISTA SHAFFER. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow AMY KASS will serve as the discussion's moderator.
I've read "The Eleventh" before, and I really enjoyed the discussion. Read the story, and look for the forthcoming transcript of the event. What follows is my own take on the story and the resulting discussion.

It's a wonder to me sometimes why we call them grantmakers. A colleague once described the incredible amount of proposals her foundation receives. In a given grant period, the foundation might see several thousand requests. Many will be rejected outright. The program may not fit the fund's mission. The organization may not be a 501(c)3. Many will be more extensively reviewed. A comparatively lucky few will be funded. I thought about this, and realized that the foundation will always decline more proposals than it accepts, so foundations are as much or more grant-deniers than they are grantmakers. The protagonist of "The Eleventh" is so uncomfortable with turning people away that he finds himself unable to continue in his post.

The story is a terrific choice for young professionals in the sector because it's about the struggle for authenticity amid an idealistic young professional's (first?) encounter with a world that is not only unfair but makes him complicit in its cruelties. Like the protagonist, I find my sympathies pulled in a number of different directions and fumblingly try to find a way to honor them in action.

On the one hand, I'm surprised at how much, on successive readings, I actually like what this palace-hospital does. They admit the first ten vagabonds that come to them. They don't pretend to be picking the best supplicants, the most deserving, or the most effective. There's no grant process, no monitoring, no reporting, and no evaluation. In the time it often takes us to find out if we're really effecting social change, the opportunity to do a tremendous amount of good for the people right in front of us passes by. Comfort, solace, rest, these things matter. Participants in today's discussion pointed out how palace-hospital doesn't provide opportunities for long-term change. By the same principle, we'd dispense with the fine arts.

Even as I look to become a greater advocate for the causes I believe in, I wonder sometimes how much social change might be effected if we all just actually took care of the first ten that came our way. And I wonder how much of our bleating about strategy, theories of change, and logic models is a futile attempt to rationalize what this young man finds himself unable to explain - why some people get money and others don't. Better then, the Master may have reasoned, to help those who come to our door as best we can. On some level, that's no more arbitrary than the "strategic" alternative.

But this approach has its own dangers. The choice to admit the first ten is itself a strategy, another pretension that the Master and his staff can easily hide behind. Why ten? Why not eleven? Why does the house never lack for ten? Is there something that can be done for the eleventh? Are we doing enough for the ten? Most of today's panelists agreed that more could be done, and that they would advise the assistant to investigate the values of the institution and see what could be done.

I don't find anything wrong in what the hospital does, but a great deal more good can, indeed, be done. They could campaign for a change in house policy. They could fundraise among their richer patients to double the number of vagabonds they can take in every month. They could start another sanitarium in a neighboring town and help the next ten. The assistant could just admit the eleventh and the twelfth next month, and see what the Master does. He could even start organizing the vagabonds!

There are endless possibilities, but I have a feeling that none of them will satisfy the assistant. He doesn't want to be the one who turns another away. Despite having seen and been haunted by the faces of those he cannot help, it's still the "idea" of injustice and his part in it that bothers him the most. This is to turn the moral and professional problem of "how do I help more people?" into a self-absorbed existential drama about God, the universe, and human limits. There is always going to be an eleventh, in some sense. If it wasn't the eleventh, it'd be the hundredth. To want to help everybody is to be philanthropic. To help somebody is to be a philanthropist.

That means making choices, sometimes awful, sometimes arbitrary. That certainly doesn't excuse our choices. It merely gives us the agenda for tomorrow: to try and make things better.

We can't lean on tradition, authority, and the unseen wisdom of the Master's plan either. Traditions can evolve. High-minded defenses of one's duty and one's place are too often excuses for protecting only those like us, for doing what comes naturally and easily, for the path of least resistance, for doing the minimum the way we've always done it, and for our own baseless choices and preferences. Young leaders should be ready to spot these instances and to stand up, where possible, for a better alternative.

The assistant in the story isn't prepared for that. If he can't provide comfort and solace to some and look the eleventh in the eye and maybe do better tomorrow, then how is he ever going to be capable of the great systemic changes that are necessary and face the 11 million still to be helped?

Everybody at some point learns that the world isn't fair. Those of us concerned with social justice know that there are a lot of things in this world that aren't fair. That injustice isn't a permanent feature of our universe but the creation of thousands of individual human decisions. However awful or arbitrary our choices, our organizations, our jobs, our world may seem today, that may change for the better tomorrow. The lesson for the assistant is this: if we're brave, and a little lucky, we can be a part of that. Is he up for it?

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