Good-bye Philanthrocapitalism, Hello Citizen Philanthropy?

January 29, 2010

Given the rise of neoliberalism over the last twenty years—the extension of the market into every sphere of life—it’s no surprise that civil society has begun to receive the same attention. Large parts of politics and government, health care and education, knowledge production and the media have already been overtaken, but civil society, one could argue, is a more important case because it’s the ground from which alternatives can grow.
When philanthropy is seen as another transaction surrounding money (usually with some strings—sorry, "advice"—on the side), the rest of "philanthrocapitalism" follows with a logic of its own: social capital markets, induced competition, donor control or direction, and the magical neutrality of "data."
But from a civil society perspective, philanthropy is an exercise in human solidarity, in which financial resources happen to play some role. "Citizen philanthropy"—broad-based, deep-rooted, bottom-up, passionate, and uncontrolled—is a much healthier and more democratic model for the future.
Can philanthropy be transformed “from a top-down process into an invitation for the grassroots to speak up and make something happen”? Yes, through citizen philanthropy, says Peter Deitz, the founder of Social Actions. “Philanthropy doesn’t require millionaires, corporate social responsibility programs, or large endowments to run. Instead, it runs on the resources and passions of real people. No one owns it, but everyone can participate.
That’s an attractive proposition, reflecting (let’s hope) a wider change in the economy to democratize how goods and services are produced (for example, open source software) and potentially underwriting a rebirth of civil society activism by diffusing power and responsibility away from a few giant foundations.
So here’s a radical idea: why not reorganize philanthropy around the one thing that civil society needs—as much support as possible with the fewest strings attached, so that the people can get on with doing what they do best?
That means:

  • Promoting the long-term financial independence of civil society organizations through unrestricted or core support, reserve funds, and endowments controlled by disadvantaged groups themselves—like the Dalit Foundation for so-called untouchables in India, or the First Nations Fund for Native Americans here in the United States.
  • Reforming and expanding community foundations and local social investment funds that can get resources to where they are most needed and build bottom-up accountability for results (a much better option than the government’s Social Innovation Fund,  which I’ve criticized elsewhere).
  • Generating more economic security for those on the front lines of social change, by dramatically expanding health care and pensions for community organizers and other civil society activists.
  • Providing more tax breaks for small contributions in large numbers, and for groups that raise money from their members, since that would encourage civil society to return to its roots. Evidence suggests that this is a good way to link philanthropy to civic and political activism, rather than just writing checks or clicking on a Web site.
  • Scaling up support for free communications and the infrastructure of the public sphere—the community radio stations, newspapers, investigative journalists, electronic media, and face-to-face debates that are essential to stir up the world of philanthropy and get more people involved.
  • And removing tax exemption from any foundation that declines to include some representation on its board from the communities it claims to serve (see—now I’ve got your attention!). After all, they are the subjects, not the objects, of social transformation.

Can philanthropy give as much credence to empathy and intuition, community and joy, and wild and wacky ideas as it does to the dull utility of the calculator and the spreadsheet? Can it value experience in social movements and other forms of civil society activism as much as it values management consultants and MBAs? Can it open itself up to the lessons of history and social science as well as to randomized trials and experimental design evaluation? Can it give support to meeting grounds where people talk as equals, not just social capital markets that divide givers and receivers and pit one charity against another?
I certainly hope so, and I think it would be a lot more fun. I hope you think so too.

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Michael Edwards


Jan 27

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