Philanthropy: beyond attack and defense

Foundations have an opportunity to engage with deeper questions about inequality.

Rajiv Khanna
10 June 2019, 12.01am
Pixabay/thommas68. Pixabay License.

When critiquing philanthropy it’s tempting to be categorical and easy to be defensive. Two thought leaders on the subject, journalist Anand Giridharadas and Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, have received much media attention of late for their seemingly divergent views.

Giridharadas’ book, Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world, argues that philanthrocapitalists, corporate foundations, and tech billionaires’ “win-win solutions” are eroding the duty of public institutions to solve complex social issues like rising inequality. Buchanan, who also has a book, Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, has been defending philanthropy as an evolving institution in response to these critiques.

Unfortunately, given the state of mainstream media, pseudo interpersonal conflicts about philanthropy are what gets media attention and sells books. However, given the severity of the shared global issues before us like the climate crisis and rising authoritarianism, do we really have time for individualized intellectual one-upmanship? Whether it’s Easterly vs. Sachs or Moyo vs. Gates or now Giridharadas vs. Buchanan, there is no reason to limit dialogue to dualistic battles of the ego.

Why? Because when we are focused on ‘winning’ arguments it’s hard to engage with each other effectively. I am also very aware that this approach is linked to the same ‘winning’ mentality that has ushered in economic, political, and climate crises all around the world. We know that feminism cannot succeed if men are left behind, that racism cannot be toppled without the involvement of white people, and that consumerism and extractivism can’t be disassembled if capitalists are excluded from solutions. So that leaves us with one choice - engagement.

At my organization, Thousand Currents, it’s my job to acknowledge, welcome, and support an increasing number of people who are navigating these debates about philanthropy. They are trying to balance the privilege of giving money away with the need for truth-telling about the origins of wealth, which recognizes philanthropy as a direct result of imperialism, extractives-driven globalization, and systematic racism.

I develop philanthropic relationships in which the interdependence of everyone involved is prioritized, and where differences in thought or opinion are openly addressed and collectively explored. All day long I talk with rich folks with whom I may not see eye-to-eye, people whose ancestors have likely made money off of mine.

I do so because I’ve learned that only by developing authentic relationships can we move or change people. Discomfort is essential to this process. It is how growth and learning happens. Although giving by wealthy individuals and public foundations is only one way social transformation is financed, how funders choose to give has tremendous impact on communities that have historically been under-supported and ignored by mainstream or elite society.

What’s more, the combined assets of foundations worldwide top US$1.5 trillion – and imagine how much more private wealth there is sitting in bank accounts around the globe, doing nothing for society but replicating itself for wealthy inheritors not yet born. Can we really afford to leave all that money on the table? Even as we critique rising inequality, I don’t believe we can – at least without offering a much better vision for how that wealth could be used.

Many progressive people’s movements don’t rely on external financial inputs. As movements always have, they will be fine regardless of whether I convince a wealthy individual or foundation staffer to shift their funding. But other groups and causes aren’t in that position, so why not build relationships with the holders of wealth and move their money to complement successful movement efforts? Perhaps even more importantly, peer to peer influence among people of wealth might create a bigger wave of change once they are aligned with, and accountable to, a vision of a more equitable future.

Therefore I have no choice but to start, and then continue on, with love, forgiveness and generosity.

In doing so I am guided by the example of our partners, who are in tune with people’s realities and deal everyday with repressive institutions, authoritarian governments, and extractive corporate entities that cause active harm in their communities. For example, Nari Chetana Kendra in Nepal has to organize men in communities before women - the same patriarchal, violent men who make their lives hell. Other partners have to liaise with big corporations to keep their communities safe from environmental hazards, or organize under threat in response to land grabs.

Seasoned and effective community organizers around the world continue to show that alienation born of disunity is not an option when it comes to achieving justice and liberation. That’s why engagement is so important - an intentional strategy to build relationships with influential and powerful decision-makers so that they can be moved.

Our work at Thousand Currents has a mandate from our partners to ensure that more and more capital reaches movements in the Global South, so our work in philanthropy means raising the level of well-being for all of us – donors included. This is why ‘winning’ the argument is not as important as adding more layers to the conversation. Giving is a both/and experience, a continual exercise in holding contradictory thoughts and feelings. We all must swim in the contradictions of intent, rhetoric and results – and do so together.

Hilda Vega, a long-time philanthropy professional, explains what happens when people get caught up on one or the other supposed ‘side’ of the current philanthropy debate:

“We can't be ok with only critiquing some bad apples. We can't continue to ignore the deep-rooted, extractive nature of the wealth that historically has facilitated philanthropy in many cases, nor the legacies that continue to shape how philanthropy is practiced...The problem is systemic racism and structural inequality, not this one gift or this one organization.”

It turns out that all of the recent thinkers on philanthropy with book deals (who I’ve noticed are all male) have useful insights. Yes David Callahan (who runs a website called “Inside Philanthropy”), major donors' charitable giving increasingly overlaps with their political aims. Yes Phil Buchanan (who researches and advises the largest foundations in the country), there are valuable gifts and effective nonprofits, though I have to say that argument, which could be reduced to the hashtag #NotAllPhilanthropists, sounds too much like #NotAllMen to me.

Yes Rob Reich (an academic who studies philanthropy at Stanford University), philanthropy is still too opaque and undemocratic. Yes Anand Giridharadas (the current critic-in-chief), the global elite use philanthropy to protect the status quo. Yes Edgar Villanueva (a philanthropy insider who works for the Schott Foundation), wealth can be an impetus for repair and healing.

So now what?

To start with, let’s acknowledge and consciously consider that all of the above insights can be useful as we move forward. Institutions, by their very nature, are slow to change, and most times the incentives to do so must come from the outside. When mistakes are uncovered or critiques are released into the public domain, there is a choice. Foundations can either dismiss the critics for “not telling the full story,” or they can engage with the deeper questions.

For that to happen we must build authentic rather than transactional relationships with donors, trustees and funders so that honest, timely, and constructive conversations about how to dismantle injustice within philanthropy have more space. Then we can share practices about how to flatten the hierarchies that inhibit resource flows and entrench power. Then we can fundamentally change attitudes and behavior. Then we can acknowledge that philanthropy is not indispensable, and most importantly, become and stay accountable to the movement ecosystems that make progressive social change possible for us all.

If money moves to grassroots solutions and visionary leaders get the resources they need with no strings attached, people of wealth can contribute to a collective vision of a more just and equitable world. I am emboldened and inspired everyday by people who not only want to give, but who also accept the responsibility to educate themselves and each other about the best way to do so in a form that is intentional, inclusive, long-lasting and ethical - not just ‘more effective.’

Like it or not, transforming institutions means transforming the people inside them. This requires engagement with wealthy people, even if they are not yet educated. The burden to engage with them about the causes of injustice often rests on the shoulders of those who’ve lost the most. But for all of us, both engagement and antagonism must be deployed strategically so that generosity can flow through all our hearts.

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