Philanthropy is not inherently good

This article in the Atlantic caught my eye today, which discusses David Callahan’s new book, The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. It also taps into another discussion I’ve been enjoying about the harmful impact of disruptive philanthropy, defined as philanthropy that competes with government rather than collaborates with it, in order to provide services.

“Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand,” write Stanford sociologists Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell in an essay published in the book Philanthropy in Democratic Societies. This is the elite philanthropy of money as power and influence. It is a philanthropy based on transaction rather than transformation.

So what does this have to do with the little guys? The yous and mes who don’t have millions of dollars to “shape civic values in our image”? It speaks to the need to collaborate across systems. To remove ego and personal interest from our giving. To consider multiple voices, especially those directly impacted. And it reminds us that all of our actions create unintended consequences.

Further, we must recognize that all of us are participating in the current economic system of haves and have nots, of givers and receivers. Through our actions, how we make and spend money, we are influencing civic values. Regardless of the scale of our impact, until we recognize the system we’re in, we’re unable to do anything about it. Similar to Albert Einstein’s thought that we can’t solve problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them, we can’t promote justice using the same economic model that created the injustice. This was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thought as well – that while philanthropy is admirable, “it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

The way to untangle the innate power structure built into philanthropy is first to become informed about your position in and contribution to the system you’re swimming in. By honestly engaging with the power and influence of money, you begin to recognize that the binary philanthropy of giving/receiving supports the status quo. Philanthropy is not inherently good; it is an action and a way of being that must be cultivated to do good. Regardless of what you have to give, and how much  power and influence you think you have, the most important consideration for any philanthropist is self awareness. Otherwise, philanthropy is merely another tool to establish dominance.

Next week: Let’s talk about money! No, really, let’s talk about it.

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