Settling into a chair beside the panoramic view from his hotel-room window, Dwight L. Allison, the chairman of the Council on Foundations reflects on his group's annual meeting, in full swing 30 floors below. ``I just came from the session on values,'' says Mr. Allison, outgoing head of this Washington-based umbrella group for the nation's philanthropic organizations, whose 1,000-plus members gave a total of $2.8 billion to worthy causes in 1985.
``I think that I was on the first panel that ever mentioned that word'' at a council annual conference, he recalls with a chuckle. That was in 1983, when Allison (who is president of the prestigious Boston Foundation in Massachusetts) served on a panel on accounting and annual reports. Thinking that would be a dishwater-dull topic, he and his fellow panelists changed the subject - to the new and untried topic of values.
It's a measure of changing times that this year's annual meeting, titled ``Facing the Future Now,'' was overflowing with concern about values. That topic shared the spotlight as one of this year's four main themes - along with immigration, the effect of the mass media, and the environmental crisis. It wove itself into nearly every discussion, cropped up regularly in conversation among the more than 1,700 attendees, and pervaded the closing remarks.
Surprising? Perhaps not. In America's newfound mood of soul-searching, increasing attention is being focused on the decline of public and private morality, on raising the standard of corporate ethics, and on imparting a stable standard of values to the coming generation.
This conference carried that concern a step further - and quite possibly a giant step. How so? Because of the tremendous effect of what grant-makers call ``leveraging'' - the capacity of a fairly small amount of foundation money, carefully directed to a useful cause, to pry loose a lot more matching funding, often from government or corporate donors.
Where will that money flow?
Looking to the future, one can predict with some confidence that more and more philanthropies - from the mighty Ford Foundation to the humblest of community foundations - will want to find ways to channel some of their funding into programs that help the nation understand and resolve its ambiguity over values. And that funding, like a small rudder on a large ship, will gradually shift the direction of society - first, no doubt, toward more studies and reports on ethics, but ultimately, perhaps, toward a higher standard of values.
Does that mean more money for tub-thumping evangelists hollering for a return to Victorian mores? Hardly. The foundation community is clear on the need to respect the line between organized religion and nondenominational charity. Too clear, one could argue: It almost seems that the foundations have a history of shunning anything that might make them even appear to be approving moral teachings.
But something is clearly changing. Call it a new maturity, or a new sense of urgency, or even a last-ditch effort to grab hold of what some say is the only thing that will save us. Whatever the reason, there's a new willingness to talk more freely about the moral and ethical dimension of a broad range of issues - from AIDS to the environment, from the dissolution of the family to the vacuity of the media, from poverty and drugs to homelessness and aging.
So when James A. Joseph, president of the council, concluded the three-day conference with a call for ``a new understanding of the role of values,'' he was reflecting a groundswell of agreement.
Consensus on an agenda, however, does not necessarily translate into agreement over strategies. Eager as they are to fund a new age of values, a number of foundation officers admit, when pressed, that they really haven't a lot of programs in mind to fund. How, after all, does one steer a nation toward a set of values that will help it meet the challenges of the future? What, in fact, are those values?
And that leaves the foundations in something of a dilemma: They've got little to fund, and a great desire to fund it. If I read it right, then, this year's message from America's philanthropists is a simple plea. ``Needed:'' it reads, ``a few good inventions.'' They don't need better mousetraps. But build a better program dealing with ethics and values, and the foundations just might be ready to beat a path to your door.
A Monday column