But let’s be clear; the people being harmed are certainly not the institutions and wealthy individuals for whom this system was created.
Recently, USA Today published an opinion piece titled People-focused philanthropy is on the way out. A philanthropy that divides is taking over, by Elise Westhoff. The basic premise of this article casts a critical eye toward the recent national conversation about community, equity, race, and justice. It suggests that holding space for philanthropy to refresh or reinvent itself in response to current events — or for philanthropy to acknowledge how systems, policy or politics — has had a disparate impact on groups of individuals and causes harm to the donors themselves.
Westhoff and I agree on one simple fact: There are individuals being harmed by the nonprofit industrial complex. But let’s be clear; the people being harmed are certainly not the institutions and wealthy individuals for whom this system was created.
And any article asserting the opposite of this will do so by relying on the same gaslighting, dog whistles, and white supremacy tactics, which are precisely things that are interwoven throughout Westhoff’s opinion piece.
This moment of pressure on modern U.S. philanthropic practices is a gift. We are scrutinizing our philanthropic beliefs and fundraising practices like never before and seeking to dismantle the systems perpetuating inequity and harm. Our unprecedented access to information, events, and needs in real-time, an explosion of new technology and giving platforms, and a national conversation centered on systems, equity and justice is necessary for donors to truly practice the values at the core of philanthropy and to build a system that benefits the communities we seek to serve and donors who choose to support our causes.
In order to understand this pressure, we must explore:
- The core purpose of philanthropy,
- The history of charitable giving in the United States, and
- The harm perpetuated by upholding this system
These three components are required to build a comprehensive understanding of philanthropy, its potential, and its critiques – one that is completely absent in Westhoff’s article.
The roots of philanthropy
Yet, I cannot fail to recognize that for all the “good” these financial contributions have done, the ways in which philanthropists have accumulated and protected personal wealth have perpetuated harm.
Let’s take a look at the word “philanthropy.” The earliest use of the word is credited to 5th century BCE Greek playwright Aeschylus. Literally meaning “love of humankind/humanity,” acts of philanthropy have persisted across history amongst all cultures — the sharing of resources, the way we care for community, acts of kindness for strangers, et cetera. And even with all of our modern day hopes, dreams and flaws, let me first assure you that philanthropy has and will continue to be people-centered. For Westhoff to say otherwise leads me to believe that the people she is keen to protect are those who have been centered and have long benefited from wealth and policy in the U.S. – white, Christian, cisgender, men.
Here’s another history lesson:
What we experience as modern-day philanthropy in the United States is a concept that began to take root in the 1800s and was cemented with Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth. In his letter to his wealthy peers, Carnegie spoke of an imperative for wealthy individuals to give away their money to support the public good. One of Carnegie’s legacies is the network of public libraries our neighborhoods benefit from today.
Throughout history, this version of philanthropy has contributed, and, at times, been essential to sustaining public good. Yet, I cannot fail to recognize that for all the “good” these financial contributions have done, the ways in which philanthropists have accumulated and protected personal wealth have perpetuated harm. Carnegie himself built his wealth during the Industrial Revolution, a time of abusive capitalism that led to union organization in the mid-1900s. We continue to see this pattern of harm in philanthropy. The Sackler family is notorious for their philanthropy across the art world. Their wealth was generated through their company Purdue Pharma, which made billions of dollars in the course of minimizing the addictive tendencies of OxyContin, while a national opioid epidemic raged for decades and killed nearly half a million people. Another example is as billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, became richer during the pandemic and endowed the Bezos Earth Fund, his company employees — Amazon warehouse workers — have had to organize against hazardous working conditions.
These practices that created wealth (primarily for white, land-owning men) are at the center of much of the societal injustice we experience today, including climate change, poverty, food apartheid, and inaccessible healthcare.
Today, we live with the legacy of slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the Gospel of Wealth, and we know that our country’s policies and systems were not designed to benefit all citizens equitably. Speaking plainly, the “people” in “people-focused philanthropy” are white and wealthy.
So yes, perhaps a new philanthropic movement is on the rise, as Westhoff asserts in her piece — but it is only divisive if we believe our choices are limited or dichotomous.
A new philanthropy
It was Darren Walker, CEO of the Ford Foundation, who offered the piece “Towards a New Gospel of Wealth” in 2015. In it, he shares:
“Philanthropy’s role is to contribute to the ‘flourishing’ of the ‘far greater part’ — to help foster a stronger safety net and a level playing field. With each generation, we should be guided by our legacy of support for social progress and human achievement in the spirit of the Green Revolution, advances in public health and human rights, social movement building, creative expression and cultural innovation, and so much more. Ultimately, this reckoning with — this reimagining of — philanthropy’s first principles and its relationship to our market system will not be easy, but this moment requires that we not go easy on ourselves. Some might see this as a problem or as pressure. To me, however, it is inseparable from our privilege — because with privilege comes responsibility. In this spirit, let us commit ourselves to proffering, and preaching, and practicing a new gospel — a gospel commensurate with our time.”
Walker’s sentiments could not be more relevant to the current crossroads at which philanthropy sits. We simply cannot continue to reinforce the status quo of modern philanthropy as informed by Carnegie and hope to solve modern problems. Change is uncomfortable yet necessary and change is what is demanded of us in this moment to advance social progress, and the human achievement Walker names as a responsibility of philanthropy.
In modern day philanthropy, U.S. donors have been making decisions through a lens that privileges whiteness. When we know that vantage point only benefits some, why would we persist in maintaining the status quo?
For many, the coronavirus pandemic and continued public acts of violence against Black and brown people have pulled back a veil exposing “the wild wrongness in so many of our current structures, and the wild possibilities if we apply our visioning, organizing, earthling selves to the conversation and pattern seeking.” Our donors deserve the right and respect to grapple with what they are learning, unlearning, and seeing clearly for the first time. As a sector, we owe them this time and information. When we do not address how social constructs — such as race — have caused harm, our donors cannot possibly address the problem they seek to solve because they do not understand it.
Community-centric fundraising, the kind of fundraising that divides us, as Westhoff would call it, is an anti-racist movement that seeks to dismantle the power-dynamics that have contributed to systemic racism and inequities, and, true to the nature of the word philanthropy, is deeply rooted in justice, equity, and love of people.
The Community-Centric Fundraising movement also illuminates the white supremacy tactics that have been long perpetuated in the nonprofit sector — tactics like poverty tourism, tokenizing, competitive and complicated grant procedures, and other gimmicks that continue to increase the wealth of a privileged few, reinforce a wealth-as-power dynamic, and perpetuate a white savior role that is less than transformational. It opens our eyes to the fact that even the data and research we use to defend the work being done is skewed.
In modern day philanthropy, U.S. donors have been making decisions through a lens that privileges whiteness. When we know that vantage point only benefits some, why would we persist in maintaining the status quo? And why does Westhoff assert that opening our eyes to unseen injustices means “ignoring” others? While a white-dominant lens in philanthropy may offer just one channel for harm reduction year over year, it certainly has not enabled, or even allowed, philanthropists to demonstrate love by addressing a root cause of harm through the dismantling of systems or through or solving the problem.
As Westhoff states: “Philanthropists are free to fund whatever causes they like — freedom demands it.”
While this is technically true, freedom cannot exist in an information vacuum. As a sector, if we are not transparent with our donors about the systems that drive inequity and give them all the information they need to make an informed choice, we effectively take away their right to be a true philanthropist — and that is not freedom at all.
Rachel D’Souza-Siebert (she/her) is the Founder+Principal of Gladiator Consulting in St. Louis, Missouri. Through Gladiator, Rachel has combined her knowledge of organizational culture and fund development with her deep personal commitment to centering community, seeking justice and creating belonging for those who have been disenfranchised or targeted by institutions, systems, and policy.
Born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India, Rachel has always been passionate about bridging differences and celebrating what’s possible when we collaborate from a mindset of abundance, learning, and risk-taking. Rachel loves cooking, snuggling her kids, and Instagram.