Thursday, October 07, 2004

A Proper use of money

Working for a non-profit 501(c)(3) which prides itself on its nonpartisanship and hard work on a small budget, I often find myself baffled by the behavior of other "charitable" organizations. Whether it be due to their obvious partisan nature, Rock the Vote or Tides anyone, or due to some recent scandal regarding their salaries and expenses (Irvine?), I am continually finding organizations who push the limits of the allowable. But sometimes I find something which absolutely baffles me for a different reason, the "usefulness" test.

The purpose of a nonprofit organization is to do charitable work, or good works, in the community. Thus, we have grant giving organizations or advocates for the homeless or YouthBuild organizations. Within the realm of good works there is a great deal of latitude, everything from soup kitchens to Pew's academic research qualifies. So when I read Myrna Blyth's new column on National Review Online I was surprised by something that seemed to fail the usefulness test. In essence, the John Templeton Foundation has decided to fund a new publication, In Character. This "journal" can be described as follows:

In Character is about the nature and power of the everyday virtues - virtues such as Thrift, to which the first issue is dedicated. Each issue of the magazine will examine how a particular virtue shapes our vision of the good life.

Each “single-virtue” issue will examine a virtue from different perspectives, bringing together scholars and journalists versed in public policy, the humanities, religion, and the sciences. In Character - and its initial group of writers and readers - represents a wide diversity of intellectual interests, political views and religious affiliations.

The journal is intended to foster an appreciation of the virtues themselves - and to prompt a widespread discussion of the virtues in American life.

In Character will be distributed free to about 1,800 opinion-makers in the English-speaking world. The law professors, members of the clergy, policy wonks, poets, physicists, medical ethicists, bloggers, atheists, bishops, philosophers, statisticians, actors, economists, historians, business leaders, and journalists on In Character’s list are politically and professionally diverse. What ties them together is the attention their opinions command and their ability to interest an audience outside their own professional specialty.

The first issue is dedicated to the virtue of Thrift.

Myrna Blyth, in her article, defends the need for such a journal. After all, who is against the promotion of virtue? (At least in the modern context, feminists I am sure have a heyday with the Latin meaning "manliness" but that is another converstion). Everyone wants to live in a virtuous society in which people live harmoniously etc. We, naturally, differ as to what constitutes such a society. This is where In Character is supposed to fill in the gap. It provides a wide array of opinion and a forum for discussion of virtue, a kind of public debate if you will that examines the many sides of any quality of virtue. I imagine little time is spent celebrating the vicious. The authors come from a wide variety of political backgrounds and includes on its free mailing list both Rich Lowry and Toni Morrison. So far this sounds like a good idea, discussion of the good society is in the interest of the "public good."

So...what is the catch? Why is my utilitometer jumping like crazy? I hinted at it above. Let's look at some further description:

Foundation executives came up with the idea for In Character in order to make opinion leaders more aware of the virtues or principles that Templeton considers important. Riley says, "The goal of In Character, first of all, is to examine these virtues then explore the link between virtue and personal happiness and virtue and the public good."

Who are the "influentials" who will be getting the magazine and who, Riley and the foundation hope, will soon be thinking about the lost virtue of thrift? They include the presidents of Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and Cal Tech; editors Rich Lowry and Victor Navasky; writers Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, and Malcolm Gladwell; publishers Jason Epstein and Jonathan Galassi, as well as Diane Ravitch, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Dr. Sherwin Nuland, Susan Sontag, and more than 1,900 others. Oprah is also on the list.

So...what we have here is a useful resource that is only available to 2,000 people, give or take a dozen. I know that the Foundation does good work, they donate about $40 million a year to research etc., but why couldn't they just make this a FREE resource. Maybe skip print publication entirely and offer it as a pdf resource. Sure there would still be a financial divide in who can use the resource, but it would be an order of magnitude more people benefitting. Brookings and CIRCLE do stuff like this all the time. I guess we only need the "enlightened" to gain the benefit of such discussion, they can pass it on down to the plebians. Let the Philosopher Kings reign from on high.

At least Myrna Blyth is on the mailing list and will parse out kernels of wisdom from National Review Online. As much as she can without violating copyright, after all. But maybe I am jumping the gun and their "Press Release" website is temporary and we will all be able to participate in the dialogue. Let's hope so.

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