From generosity to justice?

Book review

The Ford Foundation recently published “From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth”. A direct reference to Andrew Carnegie’s eponymous essay, the book sits within a long tradition of grappling with what the role and purpose of philanthropy in our society should be. Is this conversation specific to the US context or does it reflect deeper, universal questions about philanthropy?

by Rhodri Davies, CAF

The Ford Foundation recently published a book by its President, Darren Walker, entitled From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. This outlines the view of the organisation on how philanthropy should be reshaped for the 21st century.

The nod to Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth” is an acknowledgment that the book sits within a long tradition of grappling with what the role and purpose of philanthropy in our society should be. But it also comes at a time when philanthropy is undergoing a period of unusually intense scrutiny, and it is clear that this is an important factor too.  Indeed, the book is explicitly framed as a response to high-profile critiques from the likes of Anand Giridharadas, Rob Reich and Edgar Villanueva.

An ongoing question for philanthropy at a global level but one which continues to be lost in much of the current debate is whether these critiques, and consequently any proposed responses to them, are specific to the US context or reflect deeper, universal questions about philanthropy.

There are certainly important differences between the philanthropy context in the US and elsewhere. For instance, the scale of elite philanthropy (which is the real target of most current critiques) is far greater in the US than anywhere else. More broadly, attitudes towards wealth and views on the appropriate role of the state and that of philanthropy are significantly different to those found in many European countries. The US tax treatment of donations also brings particular challenges regarding inequality and the crossover between philanthropy and politics.

However, there are many similarities as well as differences. So with that in mind, what should European readers make of The New Gospel of Wealth and its prescriptions for philanthropy?

Charity vs Justice

The book’s core argument is that there needs to be a shift “from generosity to justice” ─ from seeing philanthropy’s role as addressing the symptoms of problems to seeing it much more about transforming the fundamental structures that led to them.

The idea that there is a tension between charity and justice is not new. Walker takes as his reference point Martin Luther King’s famous dictum that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not lead the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.” European readers could, however, choose instead to recall Mary Woolstonecraft’s angry cry that “it is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world”, or Immanuel Kant’s argument that “in giving to an unfortunate man we do not give him a gratuity but only help to return to him that of which the general injustice of our system has deprived him.”

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not lead the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.

Martin Luther King

A major challenge for those seeking to reshape philanthropy in light of such concerns is that wealthy donors have self-evidently benefitted from existing systems; so getting them to agree those systems are flawed may be difficult. The same may be true of philanthropic institutions: Walker argues in the book that foundations are “creatures of capitalism” and therefore may also prove resistant to calls for truly radical systemic change.

Leadership

Embracing social justice philanthropy may be an uncomfortable process. Confronting our own privilege and role in perpetuating social issues is difficult, and may involve confrontation and challenge.

One of the interviewees in the book (Carly Hare) makes the point, however, that we shouldn’t assume philanthropy is uniformly resistant to these ideas: in fact there are many people working within philanthropic organisations who believe in the need for change (a group she terms “philanthrofolk”). The challenge they face is that they may not be in positions of power themselves, and indeed may be “the only voice within their organization that’s pushing this conversation forward.”

Does this perhaps highlight a failure of leadership across the philanthropy sector? Although there are foundation leaders and others making real efforts to drive reform, are there still too many who hide too readily behind their specific mission rather than accept the need for bold moral leadership on broader issues?

Power, Diversity & Participation

A crucial element of moving from generosity to justice is shifting power as well as money. For donors, this may require relinquishing the ego that has traditionally driven a lot of philanthropy. For instance, a desire for naming rights naturally leads to an emphasis on capital campaigns and buildings, rather than funding advocacy and campaigning work or organisational core costs. Likewise, the heroic image of the “philanthropic lone saviour” can lead funders to work alone rather than seeking collaboration.

A desire for justice also demands that we put more power in the hands of the people and communities philanthropy is supposed to serve. This may be through seeking greater diversity in the non-profit workforce, so that philanthropic institutions more closely reflect those they support. Or it may require adopting participatory approaches: bringing grantees into the decision-making process about how philanthropic resources are used. Efforts are being made in both areas, but there is still far more to be done to ensure that the reality matches the rhetoric.

A desire for justice also demands that we put more power in the hands of the people and communities philanthropy is supposed to serve. This may be through seeking greater diversity in the non-profit workforce, so that philanthropic institutions more closely reflect those they support. Or it may require adopting participatory approaches

A Bold Vision?

The New Gospel of Wealth is not perfect. Some, for instance, have questioned whether it goes far enough in its recognition of the need for change. Others argue that the choice of interviewees who largely reflect the philanthropic elite of the US seems at odds with the central message of the book. Overall, however, it represents a notable attempt by an institution that is very much part of the elite to engage meaningfully with critiques of philanthropy and to question its own role. That it does so in a way that errs towards seeking change within existing structures, rather than embracing calls to dismantle those structures, may frustrate more radical critics. However, most will probably accept that it simply reflects a belief that idealism needs to be tempered with pragmatism if we are to get anything done.

In any case, more significant in the longer term than the book’s arguments may be the fact that it is the Ford Foundation making them. This may embolden other leaders and give those working within philanthropic organisations renewed impetus in their efforts to shift the agenda – but only time will tell.

Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies is Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), and also leads Giving Thought – CAF’s in-house think tank focussing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. He is the author of Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain.