A Message from the Executive Director

by David Tebaldi

David TebaldiWith the Foundation marking its 30th anniversary, I find myself drawn to a new way of looking at the work we have been doing all these years. There is growing interest in applying business models to nonprofit enterprises like ours, and in philanthropic circles a new term has been coined: “venture philanthropy,” modeled after venture capitalism, where an investor provides capital to an entrepreneur in exchange for a stake in the outcome, usually part ownership in the business. At first I resisted this notion, believing that mission-driven organizations are fundamentally different from profitdriven ones. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that venture philanthropy is not really all that new. This is what we have been doing all along. Let me explain what I mean.

There are four very different but equally essential forms of capital needed for a society to survive and flourish.

First is biological capital. Humans need breathable air, drinkable water, and arable land in order to live. Up until the 1970s, most of us took a livable environment pretty much for granted. Now we know better. We have environmental protection agencies at both state and federal levels, an abundance of environmental advocacy organizations, and conservation commissions in every city and town in the Commonwealth dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of our biological capital.

Second is financial capital. This is the most familiar kind of capital — the kind that, here in the United States, we seem most preoccupied with, too often to the exclusion of everything else. Money does matter, of course. We need it to buy the things we cannot grow or make ourselves, to invest in the productive capacities of society, to create jobs, and to provide basic services like education, public health, transportation, etc., without which a modern society cannot function.

Third is social capital. This is a concept that has been popularized by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who has documented and sought to explain a steep decline in “civic engagement” in American society over the past half-century. Social capital is generated by voluntary participation in the rituals, traditions and practices of community life — everything from PTA bake sales to pickup basketball games. Social capital is what connects us to each other and makes collective action possible. It’s part of the glue that holds a society of self-interested people together, but only one part.

The other part is the fourth kind of capital, cultural capital. In the broadest sense, cultural capital is the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral legacy of ten thousand years of human civilization. In a somewhat narrower sense it is the ideas and ideals of our own culture — our belief system, values and worldview. It includes ways of thinking and reasoning; ways of speaking and listening; ways of understanding and resolving disagreements; ways of being. It forms an essential part of our identity.

Cultural capital, like financial capital, accumulates over generations; it is something that parents “give” to their children through their upbringing. Children who put that gift to good use in school and later in the work world are in a position to bequeath more cultural capital to their own children. Cultural capital is a form of power.

When the purges of Stalin, or Chairman Mao, or Pol Pot exterminated the intellectuals, the artists and the priests, burned their books, and destroyed their temples, the goal was to deprive their people of cultural capital. Cultural capital is a form of power, and despots want all the power.

When the United States government forbade Indians from speaking their own languages and practicing age-old rituals like the ghost dance, they were deliberately depriving native people of their cultural capital. In World War II, when Anglo-American forces firebombed Dresden, they deliberately destroyed the cultural capital of the German people. In both cases, the goal was to demoralize the adversary by destroying their identity as a people.

What does all this have to with the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities? We can think of the Foundation as a kind of venture capitalist. What we provide is access to cultural capital, especially in areas where it is scarce, in exchange for a stake in the outcome. We all benefit from the outcome — a society that is intellectually more vibrant, aesthetically richer, and morally stronger; a society better equipped to face the challenges of the future.

One of the important differences between cultural capital and financial capital is that we don’t diminish the stock of cultural capital by sharing it with more people; indeed, the opposite is the case — the more we share our cultural capital, the more of it we seem to have.

The aim of the Foundation is to provide all the members of our community, especially the least advantaged among us, with cultural capital. By providing access to cultural capital, we are empowering all our citizens to participate fully in the life of our community, and to create a better future for themselves and for their children and their children’s children. And that means a better future for all of us.

Cultural capital is a form of power, and the public humanities is about sharing that power. It’s about sustaining and strengthening our democracy.


©2004 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2004