Can philanthropy support the transformation of society?

Can philanthropy be more than a smile on the face of inequality? Two of America's leading philanthropists say "yes." This is the second article in our series on the role of money in the transformation of society. 

Credit: http://ciw-online.org. All rights reserved.

When was the last time you ate a tomato? Recently, we’d guess, since tomatoes are ubiquitous in most people’s diets. But did you stop to consider who picked it for you, and under what conditions, and what it cost in human terms?

Tomatoes are a $600 million a year industry in the state of Florida alone, bought in vast quantities by food giants including Wal-Mart, Taco Bell and McDonalds.

Yet the working conditions of the women and men who pick them - mostly migrant workers - have been riddled with exploitation, violence, sexual harassment and abuse for decades. On average, full-time workers pick 150 30-pound buckets of tomatoes every day, and earn about $11,000 a year in return.

Today, however, the tomato industry is undergoing unprecedented change. Growers, pickers and corporations are negotiating to clean up these abuses by ensuring better working conditions and fairer wages.

Philanthropy has played a part in this story - not the most important one, which belongs to the workers themselves, but not insignificant either. By supporting people to organize themselves, defend their rights and make their own decisions, we believe that philanthropy can play a role in the transformation of society.

The small town of Immokalee in Florida used to be a swamp (Immokalee means “my home” in the Seminole Indian language). Then the swamp was drained, and over time agriculture became the most important industry, centered on tomatoes. Immokalee is only a few miles away from the affluent ocean-coast retirement communities of Naples and Fort Lauderdale, where some of the town’s produce ends up in high-priced hamburgers and salads.

Immokalee is also home to a community-based, human rights organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW), which has worked tirelessly to change inhumane working conditions by educating and organizing agricultural workers. The CIW has also focused critical attention on large purchasers like Wal-Mart, who until recently looked the other way.

In 1960, CBS News anchor Edward R. Murrow reported on working conditions in the area for his “Harvest of Shame” report, which described the harsh lives of migrant workers. Today, this is all changing due to the CIW’s Fair Food Program. 

On a visit to Immokalee in January, 2014, we stood in the parking lot where the workers waited to be picked up in the early morning hours. The Coalition had provided us with a guide who described a pivotal moment in the struggle for workers’ rights.

“Many years of diligent, strategic hard work and organizing bring us to today,” he told us, “when Wal-Mart executives, produce-growers and migrant farm workers can sit down together, look one another in the eye as fellow human beings, shake hands and agree to work to end gross exploitation and harmful conditions in the produce supply chain."

Wal-Mart, America’s largest retailer, had just signed on to the Fair Food Program, which had been initiated by the CIW in 2001.  Grassroots pressure had already persuaded fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and Subway to agree to a price premium for their tomatoes, and to adhere to a binding commitment to safe working conditions, and zero tolerance for forced labor, child labor, sexual harassment and violence.

According to Susan Marquis, Dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, “the Fair Food Program, unlike most social-responsibility programs, is fully enforced and, as a result, has had real, measurable effects. Accountability comes from formal audits conducted by the Fair Food Standards Council, a nongovernmental, independent, third party, as well as a manned 24-hour complaint hotline.”

So far so good, but where does philanthropy enter this story?

In our work as philanthropists over the last dozen years, we have learned a lot about what goes on in agriculture and other systems, and we’ve asked ourselves a simple question: how can the human family be nourished by food that harms both people and the planet in the process of arriving on our tables?

We believe that these systems, where exploitation is normalized so that a small minority can benefit, need to be transformed, away from domination, violence and competition. So we are dedicating our resources, entrusted to us at the NoVo Foundation by Peter’s father Warren Buffett, to help create new systems based in partnership, mutual respect and collaboration.  

At the NoVo Foundation (which is Latin for ‘create or change’), we want to support work that allows people’s full dignity and humanity to be recognized, and where those who have been marginalized are heard, valued and respected. That’s why we support organizations like the Fair Food Fund.

Philanthropic dollars can play a powerful role in this task when they are used to support people who are struggling for their rights, along with the activists who work with them. Together they can influence, and help to transform, the larger systems made up of growers, buyers and consumers that knowingly or unknowingly do harm.

Does this sound like hypocrisy? Philanthropic foundations are beneficiaries of a system that fails to recognize the voices and contributions of people who are marginalized. Foundations are endowed with money that may have been made in unjust and harmful ways.

They may even be guilty of investing their endowments in corporations that damage human beings (endowments are the investments from which a foundation makes its grants each year).

What’s more, many seem to think that they know best, imposing their own narrow frames of reference on other people. Peter calls this “philanthropic colonialism.” Choices are inevitable in a foundation since there’s never enough money to go around, but it’s possible to make these choices in ways that support other people to determine their own futures, especially those who have less power.

This is the polar opposite of philanthropy that imposes a vision from outside, an approach that’s rapidly becoming a new norm.  

Philanthropy doesn’t have to be this way, just as foundations don’t have to see people as passive recipients of their largesse, or ignore the outside forces that create poverty and inequality. Short-term fixes and feel-good stories from philanthropists are not the changes that are needed.

Instead, we have to uncover the reasons why exploitation continues, and assist people in changing those conditions. And that process starts by listening to those who are directly involved in their own social change, like the workers in that parking lot in Immokalee. The people who know how to break the chains of oppression are the people who know how those chains operate and feel.

Hard-won victories for the Immokalee workers came about through their own efforts and those of the organizations that supported them. They had a much deeper understanding of constraints and opportunities, and a powerful, long-term vision: transforming the lives of migrant workers isn’t a job for some outside savior, but a process that unfolds from the inside out.

Typically these are not the groups that get funding from foundations (only 15 per cent of American philanthropy goes to social justice causes). They don’t have flashy brochures or promise quick solutions. They’re not celebrated as experts or rewarded with high salaries. But they are crucial to the prospects of lasting transformation.

In the case of the Immokalee workers, we found and trusted an organization that they created. We’ve funded them since 2011 and have tried to do so without restrictions - with no strings attached. We know that time equals safety, and safety builds trust. And anything worth building must have a cornerstone of trust.

We understand that our own knowledge and expertise are limited, and that the power attached to money can tie knots around the possibilities for true transformation and freedom from oppression. In the worst of cases, giving merely creates another form of domination. In a world of quarterly reporting, it is tempting to demand quick, quantifiable results.

But there is a much bigger vision to be realized over time, so funding and measurements of success must be adjusted to that goal. We want to be able to eat a tomato or a strawberry, without wondering who was harmed so that we might be able to enjoy it.

Money and market economies were invented to help people share and exchange resources with one another. But now more than ever, money has become another mechanism of control, hoarding and oppression. The rich amass more wealth through an economic system that feeds off the necessity for lower costs, naming shareholder value as the winner in a quest for higher profits.

Money is called a currency for a reason: it can provide the energetic current that unlocks the potential for social change. But to do so it has to move.

So let’s move it in ways that support those with the least power and resources to make their own decisions.

About the author

Jennifer and Peter Buffett are the co-chairs of the Novo Foundation, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1999 and is headquartered in New York. Together they oversee the activities of the Foundation, which are focused on addressing systemic inequalities and creating a world in harmony with nature. Peter is also a music composer and producer.