Philanthropy and the Path of Least Resistance

January 28, 2010

Is there anything more frightening to foundations than democracy? I don’t mean the kind you pay for through projects, but the kind that enables people to participate in decisions that affect them, including decisions about philanthropy. If philanthropy is "private funding in the public interest," it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask that the public has some say in defining how its interests are identified and met. Yet there is no way they can do this at present. Even modest suggestions that foundations include a wider range of voices on their boards are met with outrage and indignation.
In fact, the "new philanthropy" seems much more interested in control than real accountability, surrounding grantees with prespecified indicators and objectives, and cloaking itself in a self-interested pragmatism that claims to focus on "what works." What works for whom, and according to which criteria? Is it only me who finds this whole enterprise deeply undemocratic? Why am I so nervous?
It’s partly because the promise of "philanthrocapitalism" is so seductive, with its mantra of "doing good for others while doing well for yourself." This is a movement that promises gain without pain, progress without sacrifice, development without politics, and social change without complexity or struggle, a comforting mirage that acts as a break against more radical and personally demanding solutions.
And it allows businesses off the hook by pretending that they can increase their social impact by reforming others instead of transforming their own core business practices. You can create lucrative monopolies, engage in wage theft, and avoid paying your taxes, but you’ll still be praised for being a philanthropist so long as you give some of your billions back. Wouldn’t it be nice if business fixed itself for once instead of meddling with others? That would make a huge contribution to the common good, by altering the costs and benefits of capitalism through fundamental changes in the ownership of wealth, and the governance and accountability of corporations. Real change will come when business acts more like civil society, not the other way around.
And that’s the point. When citizens are reduced to clients and consumers, mere objects in the donors’ randomized trials and experiments; when democracy is reduced to a choice between competing charity brands, signified by clicking on a website like Kiva or GlobalGiving; when civil society is reduced to a subset of the market, stripped of its social and political content and significance; and when philanthropy is reduced to a control system, not a support system, for deep-rooted social change, what possibilities exist for foundations to deepen democracy and authentic civic action?
Welcome to the path of least resistance, perfectly suited to our consumer society, when what we desperately need is a revival of mass-based civic activism to do the hard work of animating democracy in search of the public good. Real change happens when large numbers of low-income and other disadvantaged people gain enough traction to alter the rules of the game—the whole way our economic and political systems work.
January 18 was Martin Luther King Day, of course, and it’s interesting to speculate how the new philanthropy would have treated King and the civil rights movement that he led. I was at a service in Harlem that Sunday, where the pastor reminded his congregation that many people wanted King to abandon the Montgomery bus boycott that had been sparked by the bravery of Rosa Parks. Why? Because it would lose churches and charities too much money in donations—the ultimate negative rate of return, if you will. Because King and others ignored that advice and the narrow economic calculus on which it was based, they went on to change the world forever.
What happened then, just as what happened on the streets of Tehran last year or what’s happening today in the rubble of Haiti, has nothing to do with rates of return or data-driven performance or any of the other gobbledygook of philanthrocapitalism. It was an expression of the transformative power of the human spirit acting collectively for a higher purpose. We erode that spirit at our peril, and that’s why the stakes in this debate are so high.
Note: Sean Stannard-Stockton, of Tactical Philanthropy, has initiated a lively discussion of Tuesday's post. He takes issue with my view of social capital markets, and I've replied to him in the comments section. Tris Lumley, on the New Philanthropy Capital Blog, has similarly taken me to task, and I've replied in the comments there as well.
Monday's post: Should Civil Society Be Reduced to a Subset of the Market?
Tuesday's post: Why "Social Capital Markets" Could Be a Really Bad Idea
Wednesday's post: Welcome to Philanthropy's "Pandora"
Tomorrow: Good-bye Philanthrocapitalism, Hello Citizen Philanthropy?

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