Does philanthropy do more harm than good?

It has been a while since I have dedicated time to my blog so in the meantime I have been stockpiling articles to get inspiration and ideas. Today I sat down, excited to get back into writing, but was jolted back down to earth by this article, by Peter Buffett (son of Warren) questioning whether using philanthropy to fill the gaps created by our model of capitalism sustains some overarching structural and societal issues.

I recommend the full text – it is well written and the strength of feeling is impressive e.g. that the current model of philanthropy is a ‘perpetual poverty machine’. Ouch.

Some of the points ring true. I accept his judgements on the equivocal nature of a model of philanthropy based on ‘righting wrongs’ through cash payments. I also found a point on the problematic nature of the language of philanthropy interesting: specific vitriol is directed at the word charitable, but I recognise the whole one-way nature/ expectation of gratitude/ guilt complex in the rest of the lexicon and certainly struggle myself to find a form of words that doesn’t have some of this self-righteousness (and certainly don’t believe I manage).

Where I find it less easy to agree are on two areas he indicates are broken in the current model:

  • applying business principles to charity – I don’t dispute that a business focused view of outcomes misses the point – after all, if capitalist principles were great at solving many of the issues, there would be no need for charity at all. However, I still feel recognisable rigour around inputs and spending based on business practice could break down perceptions that the third sector is profligate and wasteful. I also think that the attitude to risk and innovation enjoyed in the private sector should be seen as much an opportunity to the third sector as a threat.
  • the entire model of philanthropy – I agree with his assessment that our current brand of capitalism accepts that any kind of externalities be balanced out with a monetary solution, at the cost of some of our better moral judgement. However, I genuinely think many people are doing their best within the system – social entrepreneurship and strong grassroots movements already take hold. Moreover, I think that finding blame in our system undermines how much we already can achieve.

The feeling I am left with is that it is easier to criticise than it is to form a new model or to champion what is good. I feel pretty uneasy about someone very privileged, who has benefitted massively from capitalism, saying that we should step back and look for other forms of value. While he is perfectly entitled to that view (and in many ways it is admirable and right – there really is something horrible about valuing ‘stuff’ over values and ethics), I believe it would be more valuable to use that privileged viewpoint and platform to identify effective solutions and best practice than to denigrate the whole model.

All the same, there is lots to think about here and I shall certainly look more into the work that the NoVo Foundation that Peter Buffett is involved in because some of this thinking leads in an interesting direction.

About Alice

Trying to be a little better every day
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