No, Not All Philanthropic Views Are Good, and Many Don’t Deserve Our Respect
Last week, six influential philanthropic leaders released a joint statement in the Chronicle of Philanthropy calling for the protection of pluralism and diverse perspectives in field. The op-ed has generated a lot of strong feelings.
Since I know and respect half of the co-authors, I am offering my response in the constructive spirit of the third principle they lay out in the piece: “When we challenge another’s views or activities, we focus on substantive arguments and invite response.”
In my view, the op-ed’s message that all philanthropy is equally valid and good was the philanthropic equivalent of “all lives matter.” According to the authors, “philanthropy provides the greatest value when donors enable and encourage pluralism by supporting and investing in a wide and diverse range of values, missions, and interests.”
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Last week, six influential philanthropic leaders released a joint statement in the Chronicle of Philanthropy calling for the protection of pluralism and diverse perspectives in the field. The guest essay has generated a lot of strong feelings.
Since I know and respect half of the authors, I am offering my response in the constructive spirit of the third principle they lay out in the piece: “When we challenge another’s views or activities, we focus on substantive arguments and invite response.”
- Philanthropy Roundtable Objects to Characterization of Its Work in Recent Op-Ed
- We Still Have a Lot to Learn About What Pluralism Means in Philanthropy
- What Was the Philanthropic Pluralism Manifesto Really About?
- Op-ed on Philanthropic Pluralism Draws Praise and Calls to Aim Higher
- Debunking the Myth of Philanthropic Pluralism
In my view, the essay’s message that all philanthropy is equally valid and good was the philanthropic equivalent of “all lives matter.” According to the authors, “philanthropy provides the greatest value when donors enable and encourage pluralism by supporting and investing in a wide and diverse range of values, missions, and interests.”
The problem is that philanthropy is not some sort of sport or brand of ice cream, where it doesn’t matter if you root for the Patriots or the Seahawks, or if you choose mint chocolate chip or rocky road. Philanthropy’s actions often mean life or death.
So, no, not all philanthropy is good. There are donors and foundations that fund anti-trans hate groups, who back white supremacist movements, who support efforts to suppress votes and ban abortions. Their actions cause pain and death to countless people. These philanthropists and foundations should never receive the same respect as donors who work to advance trans people’s rights, protect voting access, fight white supremacy, and restore abortion rights.
To insist that all philanthropic values, missions, and activities are equally valid is at best naïve and at worst harmful.
To support its erroneous premise, the article glosses over and even distorts history with statements such as this: “The history of philanthropy is a history of using private capital to supplement, not replace, other approaches to investing in and supporting a prosperous and just society.”
Philanthropy’s roots are stained with inequity and injustice. Much of the wealth in this country was built on a legacy of slavery, stolen Indigenous land, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, and tax avoidance. It is a history of white people and white-led corporations creating the very injustices that they are then lauded for trying to solve by giving fractions of their hoarded wealth.
And yes, it is a history of using private capital to replace other approaches to investing in and supporting a prosperous and just society. It is a history of wealthy people refusing to pay their fair share of taxes and instead squirreling that money away into family foundations — and now donor-advised funds — to spend on their pet projects at their whims and leisure.
The authors assert that “philanthropy as a whole makes its greatest contribution to democracy when all foundations and donors engage in the unfettered pursuit of their own mission, interests, and prerogatives.”
The lack of acknowledgment of the problematic history of philanthropy is amplified by the lack of acknowledgment of the racial dynamics at play. Philanthropy has always been the realm of wealthy white people. Most donors are white. Most foundation trustees are white. Most foundation CEOs and staff are white. How can philanthropy contribute to democracy when it is itself so undemocratic? Nothing that is controlled almost entirely by wealthy white people should ever be “unfettered.”
The authors go on to suggest five key principles to protect philanthropic “pluralism.” Here’s my response to each of them:
1. We recognize and affirm the right and prerogative of foundations and philanthropists to take programmatic or public stances in accordance with their best judgment. And while it is appropriate for any donor to question or challenge another’s views, we should not question the underlying legitimacy of any foundation or philanthropist holding a particular view.
Again, that “best judgment” is from the perspective of wealthy and extremely privileged white elites whose riches were often accumulated through inequitable means, exacerbating the issues nonprofits are trying to solve. The existence of philanthropy is itself a reflection of societal injustices, so it’s critical to question the underlying legitimacy of all foundations or philanthropists, regardless of their view, but especially those that use their power and resources to advance inequity.
As philanthropy observer and donor Cathy García says, “Not only should we question the legitimacy of foundations or philanthropists whose views include neutrality in the face of white supremacy, we should interrogate why we want to hold on to the conditions that make egregious wealth inequality possible.”
2. We behave as if the foundations and individual donors who take stances with which we disagree are also committed to the betterment of society. We assume that those involved in philanthropy have the best intentions, even if they take a different approach.
Really? Are foundations and donors that use funds to support hate groups, suppress votes, prevent work to reverse climate change, and roll back rights for anyone who isn’t a rich white dude committed to the betterment of society? Do they have the best intentions? The intentions of rich mostly white people in power do not matter. What matters is that their actions have led to endless suffering for marginalized people and communities for hundreds of years. Rectifying that reality should be the priority.
3. When we challenge another’s views or activities, we focus on substantive arguments and invite response. While disagreements may be profound — even fundamental — we believe that public debates should rely on reason and open conversation. We discourage practices such as personal or ad hominem attacks because we regard them as unhelpful to productively advancing knowledge within a pluralistic society.
I think most of us agree with this principle in theory. But people and communities most affected by systemic injustice are exhausted. We’re tired of seeing our humanity debated like some sort of academic exercise. We’re tired of seeing civility and comfort of the privileged prioritized over our safety and well-being. And we’re tired of this “bothsiding” approach from philanthropy — the view that no matter how heinous, atrocious, and dehumanizing an idea is, it should be respected for the sake of a diversity of perspectives.
4. We seek to approach disagreements with respect. Respect does not imply acceptance of a view or even commitment to a common resolution. It does recognize our common dignity. We take seriously the questions that some might raise about our perspectives, public positions, and programs. We believe critique of what we do is an opportunity for us all to learn.
Great, then take this critique: Your complete lack of acknowledgment of racial dynamics, white privilege, and white supremacy, the problematic history of wealth disparity that led to the growth of philanthropy, and philanthropy’s negative impact on a functioning democracy is a serious oversight in your call for philanthropic pluralism.
5. We reject efforts by anyone to circumscribe or proscribe the programmatic prerogatives of donors or their foundations, so long as the exercise of those prerogatives conforms with the law.
The “law” is not a good measurement of what is just and moral. Right now there are laws requiring victims of rape and incest to show proof of their assaults before they can get an abortion, anti-trans laws allowing the inspection of kids’ genitalia, laws banning books and threatening to defund libraries. Let’s remember that many nonprofits work to change unjust laws that have been weaponized against already-marginalized people and communities.
Let’s also acknowledge that philanthropy has itself been immune to almost all proposed regulations. If there’s a law under consideration that would curb its power, resources, and autonomy, the response is to shoot it down immediately.
The authors conclude with this: “At a time of unprecedented stress on our institutions, we invite our peers to join us in affirming and putting these commitments into practice as we work together to keep America’s independent philanthropic tradition alive, vital, and relevant.”
In an essay rife with disappointing statements, this concluding sentence is no exception. The “unprecedented stress on our institutions” is often caused by donors and foundations that use their wealth to undermine those very institutions. To be told not to question philanthropy, no matter whom it hurts or what horrible efforts it supports — to let it remain “unfettered” — is disheartening.
Many of us in the nonprofit field talk about working ourselves out of a job. Philanthropy, however, seems perfectly content to exist in perpetuity, never recognizing that for that to happen, inequity and injustice must also exist in perpetuity.
I hope the leaders who wrote this piece will take some time to hear the critiques, reflect, and do better. We do not need philanthropy to be “alive, vital, and relevant.” We want the world to be just, and philanthropy to be unnecessary.