Ambassador James A. Joseph: Building a Foundation for Faith and Family Philanthropy


A family’s journey toward faith-directed philanthropy can begin with a single step — a look at the family’s own values, motives, and traditions. The family might first look into the mirror of history and tradition, says James A. Joseph in this introductory essay, “Building a Foundation for Faith and Family Philanthropy.”

An inquiry into how compassionate values are developed, Mr. Joseph suggests, can help us to understand better how our own values, our charitable impulse, developed. He invites families and individuals to reflect on compassion and generosity as personal, family, and social qualities. Private beneficence, he finds, is a part of family culture. Yet adults of faith trace their spiritual growth to more than parental injunctions: the pilgrimage toward personal faith remains necessary.

Mr. Joseph traces the growth of the charitable impulse in the individual and the family, observing how faith and philanthropy can transform the family as well as the recipient of the philanthropy. He concludes that what “starts out as a very personal and solitary drive, is likely to be transformed into a larger commitment to developing or maintaining a caring society.”


There is a growing body of literature on philanthropy, but, as this volume suggests, it would be a mistake to restrict the development of new knowledge to the study and analysis of who gives and for what purposes. We may overlook the fact that knowing why people give is as important as knowing what they give. Moreover, we may miss the opportunity to discover the values we will need to cultivate if we are to remain a caring society. In this introductory article, I will examine the role of faith in: nurturing the charitable impulse, shaping the ethics of giving, generating social capital, developing partnerships, and cultivating compassionate values.

Finding the Religious Imperative

I have had a lifelong interest in how compassionate values are developed, nurtured, and activated. The formal research for The Charitable Impulse, a study of wealth and social conscience in communities and cultures outside the United States, began while I was in residence at Nuffield College at Oxford University and Mishkenot Sha Ananim in Jerusalem, but the moral curiosity, the informal search, began in my father’s church in the bayou regions of Louisiana. It took me later to the professional study of theology and peaked during my fourteen years as president of the Council on Foundations.

I share this personal note to make the point that my concern with faith and philanthropy has deep and enduring roots. Yet, there is something of an irony in my personal experience. In the black church in which I spent my early years, the rivers of compassion ran deep. When we were hungry, we shared with each other. When we were sick, we cared for each other. However, we did not think of what we gave to others as philanthropy, because it was an act in which both the giver and the receiver benefited. We did not think of what we did for others as volunteering, because it was as much a moral imperative as an act of free will.

Long before the relatively recent birth of organized philanthropy, individual acts of benevolence and altruism were considered moral imperatives in many cultures and traditions. Charity is a common virtue taught by all the great religious leaders, including Moses and Mohammed as well as Jesus and Buddha. There are still those who subscribe to the view of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbs that human beings are by nature self-centered and uncaring, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that an unprejudiced assessment of human life must reach a different conclusion. To test this assumption, I interviewed families in places as distant as Tokyo and Jerusalem, as different as Caracas and Copenhagen, and concluded that the charitable impulse is universal. It simply needs to be nurtured and activated.

In The Charitable Impulse, I used portraiture, sketching the profiles of ten individuals in often-unlikely places and unlikely circumstances, to demonstrate the universality of the values that lead to private generosity and public benevolence. Not all of the wealthy families I studied based their giving on religious faith; some secular motives were also compelling. The notion of civic duty and the search for personal meaning were often powerful forces driving prominent benefactors, but the most frequent and the most noble usually included the idea of a religious imperative.

In some places, religion has been used to legitimate personal predilections, to validate the distribution of economic and political power, and to give transcendent meaning to the values and lifestyles of the wealthy and influential. This is the religion Karl Marx described as the “opiate of the masses,” an instrument of exploitation and injustice. But religion has most often invoked a commandment to eliminate suffering and served as a basis for protest against oppression. This is the religion that has been a factor in humankind’s perception of obligations since the dawn of human history.

Those who study the relationship between faith and philanthropy are more likely to point to the Semitic religions — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — for their emphasis on charity as a moral imperative, but echoes of a religious injunction can be found elsewhere. Confucius saw benevolence as worth more than “water or fire.” The scriptures of Theravada Buddhism describe charity as a way in which “man and woman alike can store up a well-hidden treasure.” It goes on to suggest that a wise person should “do good, that is the treasure that will not leave him.”

Religious injunctions have also fortified the idea of civic stewardship. Even those families who act out of other than religious motives tend to define civic obligations in a cultural context shaped by the injunctions of religion. Not only can acts of altruism, charity, and philanthropy be found in every culture and community, but also they most often have their genesis in the requirements of religion. Those who argue that charitable giving is a uniquely American phenomenon were surprised to hear me argue in a speech to the members of the Council on Foundations in the mid-1980s that the American model of the Christian gentleman providing charitable relief as part of his moral duty has its counterpart in the Parsi who collected alms for the punchayet to distribute to the needy in Parsi communities; the Moslem who believed that zakat, contributing to the needs of deserving persons, was one of the five obligatory virtues of Islam; and the Jew whose moral tradition is dominated by the concept of tsedakh, the notion that charity is an obligation.

It is not surprising that in both Arabic and Hebrew the word justice came to be used for alms, for the religious imperative often went beyond sentimental acts of charity, which sought to contain poverty, to include a calculated generosity, which sought to eliminate it. Much is made of Samaritanism in Christian theology, the use of the story of the Good Samaritan who helped an injured man on the side of the road, as an example of the compassion that is required of the religious person. But Christian ethics takes us a step further in our understanding of the moral imperative. Suppose the Good Samaritan traveled the same road five days a week and on each day he found someone lying beaten in the same location on the road. Wouldn’t he be compelled to ask who has responsibility for policing the road? It is this progression from private charity to public action that is often missing in the discussion of the moral requirements of religious faith.

In South Africa, I was intrigued by the willingness of victims of gross human rights violations to forgive the perpetrators. The more I probed the moral underbelly of this spirit of reconciliation, the more I was led to an African concept of community called ubundu. It is an idea that is best expressed by the Khosa proverb “People are people through other people.” It follows that to deny the dignity or damage the humanity of another person is to deny or destroy one’s own, but the reverse is also true. It is easier to affirm the humanity, or contribute to the well being of another person, if we recognize that we are not hear alone; that each of us is a part of something bigger and more mysterious than the self. It is this spirit of connectedness that has led to the remarkable display of forgiveness in the former apartheid South Africa and it is this spirit of community that led people in traditional African societies to give and to share. Whether we call it religious faith or a very special form of African humanism, ubuntu is a spirit that needs to be captured and cultivated not only in South Africa, but also throughout the world.

What Are the Ethics of Giving?

Faith provides not only the genesis of acts of generosity, but it often shapes the style of giving. After making the point that “the Jew does not give simply because he feels like it, but because it is his obligation,” Jacob Neusner argued in a 1985 article in Foundation News magazine that Judaism also requires consideration for the humanity of the recipient, who remains no different from the donor. “The poor person must enjoy respect and dignity.” Those who receive are not less than or different from those who give. They have not only needs, but also feelings. They welcome not only our beneficence but also our respect. So when we engage in the act of giving, we must do so in such a way that the equality of the giver and the receiver is acknowledged. This is not simply an act of grace or even an expression of affection. It is, for the faithful Jew, an act of respect, an expression of duty.

Neusner, who was University Professor and distinguished scholar of Judaic Studies at Brown University at the time of his article, went on to argue that two additional elements follow. First, it is not necessary for the donor to know who gets, or for the recipient to know who gives. Second, the situation of the donor is as important as that of the recipient. It is not enough to give. Giving must be done with thought. It must be marked by reflection, respect for the other party, and enhanced humility on the part of the donor. Accordingly the bottom line is this; how you give matters at least as much as what you give; this is the meaning of the Jewish laws of tsedakah. As Neusner summarizes it, “We Jews move from what is required of us to what we are required to become.”

The contributions of Christianity to our understanding of the relationship between faith and philanthropy are manifold. But the early Christians were among the first to acknowledge that virtue alone would not feed the poor. From the beginning, moral precepts were joined with behavioral injunctions. A vocabulary of duty and obligation developed alongside the language of reward and punishment. Just as for the Jew, for whom the concept of righteousness and charity were fused into the term tsedakah, for the Christian the concept of agape came to represent a coalescence of love and charity. And it is this notion of love that forms the basis of all moral life. Agape is not the same as liking, but it involves an unconditional acceptance. The neighbor who is to be loved is anybody.

In Man’s Nature and His Communities, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that any distinguishing mark between the “we group,” in which mutual responsibilities are acknowledged, and a “they group,” which are presumed to be outside the pale of our humanity, serves the tribal character of human nature. What saves the self from destructive tribal limits and undue self-regard is the primacy of grace and transcendence. The notion of self is tied to a larger system of loyalty and meaning, thus creating both a strong sense of interconnectedness and moral obligation to the community. For the Christian, then, philanthropy in its most ideal state does not seek reciprocity or mutuality. It is self-giving without being self-serving, and it goes beyond tribal limits to embrace all of the created order.

Faith Builds Social Capital

In the church in which I grew up, meeting the needs of the neighbor was fundamental to our self-understanding as moral persons and essential to our self-understanding as religious people. The importance of what Robert Putnam and others call “social capital,” the idea of networks, norms, social trust, and voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit, was inherent in every aspect of the social ministry of the church. Yet, the story is only now beginning to be told of how the African-American church, often limited in financial capital, used its array of social organizations and civil society networks to establish bonds, build trust, set norms of behavior, and meet community needs. It has provided not only the moral capital for the development of social values, but it has also been a place where people honed social skills, made connections, developed the resource for dignity, and enhanced the capacity for self-assertion. Even organized giving has deep roots in the African-American community. Long before Frederick Goff developed the first community foundation in Cleveland, the black church was serving as a community foundation of sorts, activating the charitable impulse, multiplying assets, and using private resources to serve a public good.

Black religious institutions have also developed and provided what Robert Putnam now calls “reputational capital.” Like conventional capital for conventional borrowers, these faith-based organizations use their social capital as a kind of collateral for men and women who are excluded from credit or labor markets; often vouching for members of the faith whose formal credentials and possessions understate their potential and reliability. High school dropouts, former drug addicts, and ex-convicts are not only rehabilitated, but because they generally value their standing in their religious groups they also acquire an additional incentive to perform responsibly.

Faith-based organizations in the black community have been particularly helpful in providing a vehicle for private donors to broaden their base of information and insight to include those whom they seek to help in the planning process. If strategies to eliminate poverty are to be effective, the poor must be included in their own development. Some call this “assisted self-reliance” or “participatory development.” The black church is a good place to engage grass roots energies and enthusiasms not simply in defining problems but also in proposing solutions. Experience around the world seems to demonstrate that, when we empower the poor to be active participants in their own development, we are likely to have not only new ideas and wider ownership of basic strategies, but increased effectiveness as well.

Examining Faith-Based Partnerships

There is considerable debate in the American society about the wisdom of collaboration between faith-based organizations and public or private donors. When we set up the Philanthropy and Religion Committee at the Council on Foundations shortly after my arrival in the early 1980s as the new president, the idea of foundations and corporate giving programs collaborating with faith-based organizations was considered by some to be far too liberal. I went abroad for a few years as the American Ambassador to South Africa and returned to learn that the idea was now considered by others to be far too conservative. While the idea is neither conservative nor liberal, the problem for many people lies not so much in the idea of partnership as in the concern about process.

The fear that faith-based organizations will intermingle resources for the propagation of the faith with resources for social ministry is a legitimate concern, but there is much that can be learned from the black church in this regard. Black religious institutions have been under intense scrutiny from the very beginning of their efforts to collaborate with public institutions, so many now make it a point to appropriately segregate funds, prudently account for expenditures, and ensure regular audits of their non-sectarian activities.

In the past decade, the emphasis on private-public partnerships led management guru Peter Drucker to coin a new term for this form of collaboration. He called it the fourth sector, in many ways distinct from the public sector driven by ballots, the private sector driven by markets, and the third sector driven by voluntarism and the institutions of civil society. We now have an opportunity to expand the notion of a fourth sector or, alternatively, introduce the idea of a fifth sector where organized philanthropy and organized religion collaborate under a non-sectarian umbrella.

Having extolled the virtues of collaboration between religious institutions and organized philanthropy, let me also offer several cautions.

First, it would be a mistake to divide the religious institutions seeking to meet the needs of the neighbor into those that are politically acceptable and those that are not. In some of the larger metropolitan areas, for example, the black church has been joined by the more recent expressions and influences of Islam. About 2.5 million blacks in the United States now classify themselves as Muslims, and if the conversion rate continues unchanged, it is reliably predicted that Islam could become the dominant religion in some black urban areas in the next two decades. While it is worth noting that only a fraction of blacks practicing Islam are followers of the Nation of Islam, the new groups, like the early church, have developed credit unions, job banks, burying associations, and other initiatives that provide help and hope for those outside the mainstream economy. It is, thus, important that those of us concerned about the plight of those who have been left behind not allow any one to dismiss the legitimate social ministry of any group simply because its adherents confess a different creed, use different rituals, or find meaning in altogether different expressions of religious faith.

My second caution is that those of us who emphasize the potential of faith-based organizations in meeting social needs and solving serious social problems should also point to the limits of these institutions. Just as we once exaggerated the potential of the public sector to solve social problems, there is now the reverse tendency to exaggerate the role of civil society and private initiatives. What we need, and what should be the central point of the national conversation, is the importance of partnerships.

Cultivating Compassionate Values

Compassion and generosity are virtues every society desires to cultivate, but there are all too few clues about how best to prepare the next generation to understand their obligations and meet their responsibilities to one another. Not all of the families I studied in the 1980s were motivated by compassionate values, but for those who were, there appears to have been at least four stages of consciousness in the evolution of the charitable impulse: stage I, in which compassionate values were developed; stage II, in which compassionate values were nurtured; stage III, in which compassionate values were activated; and stage IV, in which options beyond private benevolence were considered.

I was struck in the study by the degree to which private beneficence was a part of a family culture. The family taught compassionate values during early childhood. As children, some of the donors were admonished by an elder to treat others well, to be concerned about the well-being of those with whom they shared a special relationship, and to give as much as they got from society. They seemed to have passed through the three “foundation stones” of moral leadership described by Michael Shulman and Eva Mekler in Bringing Up a Moral Child: the internalization of moral standards, the development of empathy, and the formation of personal standards.

Although the best time for teaching compassion and generosity is in childhood, simply espousing compassionate values in the family does not appear to be sufficient. There is a specific pattern of childrearing that seems to encourage beneficence in later years. Parents who transmit altruism most effectively seem to exert a firm control over their children’s moral development. They actively guide them to do good, to share, to be helpful. Children who have been coached to be helpful are more likely to be helpful when a spontaneous situation arises later.

Compassionate values taught by the family in early childhood were often reinforced later by religion, intermediary institutions, or what Robert Reich calls in Tales of a New America “morality tales” and “cultural parables.” These tales and parables, which can be found in every culture, constitute orienting ideas less rigid than an ideology but also less ephemeral than the “public mood.” They may be rooted in religion, literature, or indigenous mythology, but they help to shape a common set of moral assumptions.

The injunctions of religion are particularly valuable in reinforcing compassionate values because they embody mythologies that are not powered by culture alone. The individual in the very act of accepting the claims of religious faith transcends the limits of time, place, or culture. Thus, he or she is free to accept and affirm a moral obligation or purpose that may be quite different from what is commonly acted or practiced in his or her own time.

The view of my old professor Richard Niebuhr (Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother) of “religion transforming society” was a major element in the motivation of those who gave birth to modern philanthropy. They rejected the belief of some of their contemporaries that poverty was a permanent condition unchangeable by human intervention. Moreover, they refused to be private people. Their compassion and concern were developed and reinforced through the public myths or private teachings of their religion.

What stands out in any discussion of faith and philanthropy, even after the claims of anthropology, socio-biology, economics, and psychology have been considered, is how those who give are often transformed by their giving. Those who involve themselves in the social needs and problems of others will find that there is something in the nature of the relationship that is likely to transform them, compel them, and engage them with themselves and their neighbors in a brand new way. And once they discover the ability to make a difference for an AIDS patient, to change the life of a child who has become accustomed to going to bed hungry, or to salvage an endangered cultural institution, the charitable impulse, which starts out as a very personal and solitary drive, is likely to be transformed into a larger commitment to developing or maintaining a caring society.