The ROI Trap on the Institutional Right

Small business mindset

One current structural, truly structural issue that the right has is the “ROI Trap.”  So many donors and managers on the right demand ROI (return on investment) in whatever they do.  If a small businessman gives $10,000 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), he will likely demand more than $10,000 in “returns.”  And these nonprofits spend enormous sums of money, perhaps a third of their gross revenue every year (!), on “development,” another word for fundraising.  And a big part of that development money is spent on demonstrating ROI.

So, for example, that donor might want a year-end report showing that his $10,000 supported a full time researcher who had some really viral report and media hit that was “worth” way more than $10,000.  And each year he gives more, he will demand bigger deliverables.  If there’s a “down” year in a metric, he might threaten to decrease his funding.

This is the small business, small brain mindset, and it’s a trap.

I’ve been reading Oliver Zunz’s “Philanthropy in America,” and while it’s dated, it provides an excellent history of nonprofit management in this country.  He largely dates the ROI mentality (he doesn’t call it this) to Carnegie’s late-life determination to return the capital he extracted and created back to the nation, using the same modern management techniques he pioneered in his private enterprise.  Where Carnegie donated, he demanded returns.

Carnegie had a tenuous relationship with institutional Presbyterianism, but was a Calvinist in his bones, and I think this ROI mentality does have some relationship with this particular strain of Christianity.  Taking a mechanistic view of a depraved man, Calvinistic philanthropy consciously wants to avoid relying upon the human element, instead wanting to set up processes which can run themselves, even if the individuals in the organizations are thoroughly rotten.  In this respect, it is a species of liberalism, and should sound familiar.  Checks and balances in the US government can pit ambition against ambition and get good results, and the marketplace of ideas can take disagreement and, presto changeo, develop the right answer.  Similarly, mechanical methods of nonprofit management are intended to permanently institutionalize the hand of the dead donor.

Except they can’t.  Just look at the Ford Foundation, or the various Carnegie endowments— these all technically comply with their foundational documents, but are now coopted engines of woke capital, surely contrary to the ideas of their benefactors.  There is no magic legal document, no magic corporate charter, that can stave off institutional rot.  And there is no set of protocols that can guarantee success.  You simply cannot build Babel, cannot build Zion on earth.

What does the left do?  What should the right do?

Well, there is no sense in trying to convince most of the donor class to stop donating $1 to get $0.25 in work and $0.75 in glossy printouts explaining the work.  But I hope that some of the more forward thinking donors will focus on personnel first.  Find the good individuals and fund them in an open-ended manner, as a part of your diversified philanthropic portfolio.  Find trusted middle men whose job it is to be the ball bearings for conservative growth, and bounce ideas of many people.... then spend.

I will likely post about my experience during the 2020 election in Green Bay, Wisconsin later, but part of the lesson there is that Zuckerberg is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on moonshots, and hundreds of millions of dollars funding aligned individuals, without breathing down their neck.   But when these long-term plans deliver, boy do they deliver.  Certainly, the short term ROI might look awful, but Zuckerberg and others are funding a movement, funding individuals.  Undoubtedly there is some grift, and some projects are complete failures.  But just as with venture capital, one successful project can fund a hundred unsuccessful ones, and a hundred unsuccessful ones can seed the ground for later success.  Does anybody think these woke jannies (nb: janitors, people who do nothing but police Twitter feeds and try to drum up outrage) provide consistent ROI?  And yet they have sinecures at the NYTimes, the WashPo, and at other institutionally left wing outfits, and no one denies they have real power right now.  

It is valuable in itself to support good people.  To the extent modern capitalists have the noblesse, let me explain the oblige— you can’t take your capital with you, and you only have control during your short life, if that.  It is good to support good people.  Good in itself.  If you care about someone who is “cancelled” and fired, care enough to tweet about it, and you have the means, perhaps send that person a check.  For many of these people, you might see no “return,” but you are contributing to a more humane world by doing so.  Don’t complain about the system: you are the system.

And that’s just one small thing you can do.