The Corner

A Bradley Week Appreciation for Bill Schambra

This is Bradley week in Washington — the week when the Bradley Prizes are awarded at the Kennedy Center, and when the annual Bradley Symposium is held, both initiatives of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. This year, my colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs are co-hosting the Bradley Symposium, taking over that responsibility from the Hudson Institute, where for the past several years William Schambra did the heavy lifting, often entirely behind the scenes. Since Schambra is going into a sort of semi-retirement at the end of this year, it is worth taking the occasion of Bradley week to say a few words about his work and what makes him such an extraordinary figure in the nation’s capital.

A little over a decade ago, Schambra launched Hudson’s Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. It is a think tank project like no other, since the subjects it focuses on rarely get the kind of thoughtful intellectual attention that Schambra and his colleagues have devoted to them.

First, philanthropy. Private philanthropy is a huge, and hugely influential, part of the economy: American individuals, corporations, and private foundations made grants and donations totaling some $335 billion in 2013. But the role and effects of U.S. philanthropy are woefully understudied, and it can be especially difficult to find well-informed people who are willing to criticize the way that foundations spend their money. Under Schambra’s leadership, the Bradley Center has convened perhaps a hundred or more public conferences bringing together a wide range of speakers — scholars, journalists, tax experts, the people who make grants, and, crucially, the people who receive grants — to discuss what U.S. philanthropy is doing well and doing badly. In his own writing (which you can get a taste of in Philanthropy magazine and Philanthropy Daily), Schambra has long condemned an arrogant mode of philanthropy in which foundation staffers swoop down from on high to try to fix the supposed “root causes“ of complicated social problems.

Schambra’s recognition of the need for a humbler and closer-to-the-ground kind of philanthropy grew in part out of his own firsthand experiences: He spent most of the 1990s as a program officer at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, where he became acquainted with many organizations working hard to help the needy.

American civic life, the other great theme of Schambra’s efforts at the Bradley Center, is also a complicated subject that ought to be discussed more humbly — and that conservatives ought to attend to more often. Here, Schambra’s most important work has been alongside Hudson’s Amy A. Kass, the longtime University of Chicago professor who is the closest thing to a natural-born teacher you could ever hope to meet. Not only did Schambra and Kass hold public conferences on questions of civic and social life, but they also hosted private seminars, inviting dozens of scholars, including many young think tankers, to read and discuss short stories, poems, and songs that reflect on the American character and the principles, obligations, and civic attachments that unite us. For many of the participants, the seminars were a rare and welcome opportunity to reflect and learn together about what it means to be an American. The seminars laid the groundwork for Kass’s 2011 anthology What So Proudly We Hail, which has grown into a broader project to use literature for teaching civic virtues and the meaning of American citizenship. (A previous series of seminars Kass and Schambra convened led to her 2008 anthology on philanthropy.)

Meanwhile, Schambra has somehow found time to write with grace and eloquence on other subjects he knows well, such as the shameful history of U.S. philanthropic support for eugenics, and how the Progressive movement (the subject of his doctoral dissertation) influenced the way the Left still thinks about solving policy problems.

What a remarkable dozen years of writing, speaking, and conferences on important subjects that we too often take for granted! There is much more that could be said about Bill Schambra and his omnicompetent colleagues at the Bradley Center (Kristen McIntyre, and before her, Krista Shaffer). But Bill is so admirably modest that even these few words of praise will surely vex him. If there is any consolation to be had in the fact that the Bradley Center is winding down its work in the next few months, it is that Bill still has a great deal of youthful vim, and will hopefully now have more time to pick up his pen and write.

— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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