Opinion
September 02, 2014

Ferguson Shooting, Not Ice-Bucket Craze, Demands Philanthropy’s Focus

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Protesters hold signs at a rally in Ferguson, Missouri.

Over the past month, your world has either been on fire or freezing cold, depending on which social media feed you follow. The most succinct of many tweets analyzing this summer’s two news juggernauts reads:

Glance at the media that cover the nonprofit world, including The Chronicle, and it becomes clear that many in organized philanthropy have until now fallen firmly on the "Facebook" side of that divide.

Facebook, here, stands not only for one social-media network but also for the match between feel-good, ostensibly apolitical content and a highly mediated social network, in contrast to the Twitter’s vox populi, which provided immediate ground- and gut-level reactions of anger and frustration.

Granted, the ice-bucket challenge sits firmly in philanthropy’s wheelhouse—raising money for a cause in a new and clearly engaging way. Yet nonprofits must also engage with Ferguson, both by providing immediate support and by publicly recognizing philanthropy’s humbler, but still critical, role in communities riven by political conflict.

While the ice-bucket challenge did provoke some debate about philanthropic priorities, most didn’t ask the really tough questions. Instead, the focus of most critiques was on its effectiveness as philanthropy. Will ALS be able to retain these donors? Does the organization properly allocate its funds to research and education? Is a disease-specific charity an efficient mechanism to pursue medical research? Perhaps the most incisive critiques were those that compared the $100-million raised for ALS research and $1.55-billion cut from the National Institute of Health budget for basic science research—research without a name-brand disease or sexy recognition vehicle.

The ice-bucket challenge offers many interesting questions, but devoting so much time to it, and to philanthropy itself, in the national press marginalizes the much thornier struggles of people who are, perhaps, not on everyone’s literal and figurative screen. Some found it difficult to reconcile watching people voluntarily, even playfully, put themselves in temporary discomfort while hundreds of bodies were in grave physical danger just walking the streets of their neighborhood.

Twenty years ago, Anna Quindlen wrote about this same tendency to compartmentalize our sympathy:

"We have witnessed the canonization of one AIDS patient, a 23-year-old woman named Kimberly Bergalis who says that she ‘didn’t do anything wrong.’ This is code, and so is her elevation to national symbol. Kimberly Bergalis is a lovely white woman with no sexual history who contracted AIDS from her dentist. She is what some people like to call an ‘innocent victim.’

"With that single adjective, we condemn those who get AIDS from sex and … dirty needles as guilty."

No one would dare say that those suffering from ALS might have somehow brought the illness upon themselves by their conduct. That trope often dominated the coverage of Michael Brown’s death and ensuing protest, suggesting that robbing a convenience store, disobeying a police officer, or simply assembling en masse to mourn all justified responses ranging from gunshots to tear gas deployed in crowds.

We should ask ourselves how nonprofits, which are devoted to improving the world and extending generosity to others, are so easily able to see, empathize with, and take action on behalf of people vulnerable to illness—a nameless, faceless force of nature—but less willing to do the same with those who are vulnerable to police violence, a problem that has an all-too-specific name. If those of us in the nonprofit world limit ourselves to "safe" causes, we’re missing out on our highest calling.

Philanthropy often strives to address problems with money instead of political (or, thankfully, physical) conflict. It favors an environment of pragmatism rather than justice—one that assumes problems like racially disproportionate incarceration, educational disparities, and poverty exist a priori, rather than as conditions formed by institutions, policies, and individuals who need to be held accountable.

And it does not have a monolithic response to what it sees in a place like Ferguson. Some people will feel moved to make major gifts to the Fraternal Order of Police, others to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Those are key reasons philanthropy alone cannot solve the conflict between police authority and every citizen’s right to autonomy. However, in the short term, it can provide for the basic needs of Ferguson citizens whose lives have been destabilized by violence. And quietly, with guidance from the community members of Ferguson, it can make longer-term efforts to redress the social fragmentation wrought by years of segregation, decreasing access to jobs, and a rapidly diminishing social safety net.

Thanks to the clearinghouse compiled by Bolder Giving, links are available that make it easy for people to discover how to donate to groups that will provide direct aid to people in and around Ferguson, including food banks that assist the high-poverty area, medical supplies, and legal aid for those arrested during the protests.

Bolder Giving also included links to groups running community-organizing efforts, including Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and the Organization for Black Struggle.

The Ferguson situation brought to light another set of institutions that deserve strong financial support from those disturbed by recent events. The Beacon Reader and Ferguson Livestream (overseen by ColorofChange.org) are important independent journalism projects that were a key reason the nation learned about what happened to Michael Brown.

Other organizations that provide independent journalism like ProPublica and the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund will probably continue to raise the kinds of issues that lead to a situation like Ferguson—and they will need money to carry out that important role.

The challenge for philanthropy now is to understand and act upon the context of this summer’s events. Ferguson is full of people who have been twice dehumanized: by the police who view them en masse as potential criminals and by the media coverage that emphasizes looting and incidents of violent resistance over peaceful protests.

Part of the frustration over the Twitter-Facebook divide was the matter of visibility, specifically the idea that a huge population would rather pour ice over their heads than pay attention to the fact that a police officer killed an unarmed 18-year-old.

Philanthropy can help change that situation by financing projects that not only educate Americans about what has been unfolding but that also demonstrate a sense of solidarity and empathy with the Ferguson protesters.

Among the actions foundations and donors could support:

  • Develop a curriculum on the history of housing segregation in America.
  • Support state and local American Civil Liberties Union chapters to advocate against mass incarceration.
  • Commission Anna Deavere Smith, along with younger artists, to remake "Fires in the Mirror," a seminal work of live and televised theater that infused humanity and empathy into the racial and religious disputes that erupted in Crown Heights, N.Y., over a car accident involving a Hasidic Jew and a young black child.

Above all, they must continue supporting organizing efforts that engender self-determination.

Notice that all of those options represent giving the people of Ferguson the support to pursue justice and reconciliation on their own terms. They also don’t try to deal with the full scope of problems that made Ferguson the crucible it has become for race, violence, security, and poverty.

As the vocabulary of philanthropy trends toward entrepreneurial innovation, it is possible to overshoot in its ambitions. Philanthropy cannot, and should not try to, "solve" Ferguson. Here, philanthropy is not acting as a leader but as an ally. No "convening." No "catalyzing." No vulture "social entrepreneurship," where the civic decay becomes repurposed as a laboratory for privatized schools and other institutions.

Instead, philanthropy can help gain exposure and spur analysis of what happened in Ferguson in a way that challenges all of us. But most important, it must provide the material support that will allow a community to heal, sustain, and mobilize itself for political justice.

Amy Schiller, who has worked as a major-gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer, is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center of CUNY.