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Karl Zinsmeister, vice president of publications for the Philanthropy Roundtable, was editor in chief of The American Enterprise from 1994 to 2006, and then George W. Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser. Earlier, he was a history major and a national champion rower at Yale. He has written 13 books, including The Almanac of American Philanthropy, and now lives on a houseboat with his wife: They have three children and three grandchildren.
Tell us about the houseboat. Washington is a wonderful city in many ways, but it’s button-down and staid. Very interested in success and power. I feel privileged and blessed that I can work with my brain for much of the day, but I often want to do something more concrete. Living on a boat is part of that.
And you built houses, right? I was a freelance writer, and it was the best way to establish my career. I was able to write on exactly what I wanted to write about. I didn’t have a steady income, so I also worked as a carpenter, buying old junk houses nobody else wanted in Washington, camping out in them before I got married, fixing them up, and selling them. It was a bit of a death wish, but I did that eight times, including when my family started to arrive. It kept us in groceries and diapers in those lean years.
‘Donors give away $410 billion every single year in this country, voluntarily, without anybody asking or pushing it.’
On to your work in philanthropy: Surveys show many Americans believe the charitable service that happens across America just happens, and would happen even if religious people and organizations weren’t doing it. You’ve learned that’s not true. I’ve walked through the data and asked specific questions: Who, for instance, adopts children? Christians are 2½ times more likely to adopt hard-to-place children than the rest of us. Who runs homeless shelters? Religiously inspired groups now provide 6 out of 10 beds for homeless people in major urban areas. A predominance of the selfless work in our society today comes out of religious motivation. Without that we have a much colder, much more selfish, much more heartless society.
The giving patterns reflect that. People who attend weekly religious services most of the time contribute four times as much as nonattenders. And yet, 57 percent of Americans say that if those religious folks weren’t active, these charitable works would happen anyway. Communication gap? There sure is. Many feel that religion is not only unnecessary but negative. I would hope those who don’t have a personal faith would at least see that religious people act very differently than others. Different priorities. Different principles. In most cases, pro-social as opposed to antisocial behaviors, but that reality is increasingly lost in public debates.
Yep. Your book has fun facts like this: 14,000 Starbucks outlets in the U.S., 350,000 religious congregations. We probably hear more about Starbucks than churches. We do. When I go to a city, I love to go to local churches and see what I can learn about local culture by attending services. I attended a service in a drab, 1950s-style public high school in Santa Monica. It was a wonderful service helped by people spending a lot of energy to transform the auditorium interior into a semi-sacred space in short order—and then breaking it all down when they’re done. All kinds of churches all over the country go through this every weekend. They’re meeting in schools; they’re meeting in shopping centers; they’re orphaned congregations that meet Saturday nights in somebody else’s church.
Not bogged down with bricks and mortar? I understand buildings can become a terrible distraction, but for thousands of years, human beings sacrificed to have sacred structures. Our current spatial mismatch is weird, and we need to solve it. Many of the big churches in big cities are empty or attended by 15 little white-haired ladies on Sundays. Maybe we could do a swap: Those white-haired ladies could get a nice intimate little church where they can meet and have fellowship rather than rattling around in a huge stone cathedral they can’t even heat properly. Then, we get those big, booming churches out of the strip malls and into the space that was built to make you feel you’re in heaven for an hour and a half.
Often the people who own those churches are hostile to evangelicals. Some people are so stubborn, they’d rather have the church desacralized and turned into a condominium or a bar. This is happening in large numbers. But churches are the places where AA meetings get held. Churches are where the art fairs take place. Churches have day cares. That doesn’t happen anymore when the building becomes a restaurant, a condo, or a bar. Once you’ve lost these big, open, communal spaces in the middle of a New York City or San Francisco or D.C., you never have a similarly available public space.
So, philanthropy has a role here: Donors can help churches outbid the condominium folks. Yeah. And it isn’t just the physical vessel. The burgeoning churches, almost by definition, tend to have good leaders with a more orthodox theology. They have energy. They make demands on people. Many growing churches are like the Marine Corps: The harder you make it, the more people love it and want to be part of it. That’s important in theology as well. Leaders need training, but the average person coming out of seminary today comes out with about $50,000 worth of debt. That’s a big, heavy stone. What if they didn’t come out with debt, if we could give them continuing education to freshen their skills without having to abandon their congregations? What if we could have paths for second-career pastors, those who had a career in business, or academia, and suddenly felt the call, and would like to become pastors? That’s hard to do today. If you had night classes, if seminaries were more open to video instruction, you could train more second-career people.
Can churches help people get jobs? A lot of people don’t know how to get that first step on the employment ladder, and we also have many small businesses desperate for welders, truck drivers, nurses, or day care workers. One Florida nonprofit uses churches as venues to match employers and employees. People walk out the door with an offer after sitting down for mini-interviews. And, once they’ve gone to church and gotten a job, it’s easy to invite them back for worship.
What about college students who want to work with charities and philanthropies: Any career opportunities there? It’s wide open, a green pasture. Philanthropy is a really exciting and important part of American culture with all kinds of room for social invention. If you’re able to find new solutions to old problems, it is tremendously satisfying. The downside is you don’t have a boss, a road plan, or a clear recipe book. You have to be self-sufficient, improvisational, thinking on your feet. But if you have any of those qualities, and you want to make your world better, and you’re not focused on the almighty dollar in the short term, there are tremendous opportunities. Donors give away $410 billion every single year in this country, voluntarily, without anybody asking or pushing it.
Sometimes people are pushing. A little pushing is good. But nobody has legal power to coerce you. Philanthropy provides social venture capital that does things we can’t do with government or corporate money. There is all kinds of room for people with entrepreneurial ideas about how to start job fairs at churches or so much else.