If you’re a donor, executive director or team member at a nonprofit, I have a question for you.
Do you think the current philanthropic model works and empowers those you serve in deciding how and what benefits them most?
Although I believe that charity is necessary for some instances, I don’t believe our current philanthropic model is in the best interest of those it serves. I have thought for a long time that philanthropy as we know it has to change. That’s why in my social enterprises, I’ve worked to develop an economic opportunity for micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations.
Charity is necessary when families fall on hard times, for example. But what people want most is a chance to get ahead for themselves. They don’t want hand-outs. The don’t want to receive unending charity. What they do want is an opportunity.
Why Does Traditional Philanthropy Not Work?
Pouring money at a problem works sometimes, but often it doesn’t. Let’s take education for example. We’ve had hundreds of millions of philanthropic dollars spent in schools that are under-resourced. However, here we are well into the 21st Century, and we’re still debating how best to educate students and why performance levels are not higher than expected. One of the challenges is that many donors are looking at education in a vacuum that is divorced from systemic poverty and other factors.
It’s been my view that wealthy people giving hundreds or even millions (and these days billions) of dollars is commendable––to a certain extent. But, here’s the deal, if you do not engage and involve the communities in figuring issues out for themselves, you’re not doing much more than making yourself feel better if you’re a donor.
Aileen Shaw described in her paper for the Synergos Institute, which you can read here,
Traditional philanthropy has historically been defined by an attitude of noblesse oblige and is based on a charitable paradigm. The charitable model reinforces existing power dynamics between the have and the have nots; giving is concentrated on causes that do not challenge the status quo or on efforts that temporarily alleviate problems. Social justice philanthropy on the other hand questions the assumptions inherent in charity. It has its origin at the debate about the causes of poverty and social problems. The much quoted Martin Luther King axiom is apt in this context, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.”
A Model That’s a Bridge to Opportunity
I don’t know how many times I’m going to say it, but I’ll write it again here: Enough with thinking that doesn’t work. Let’s end the current model of charity that is a feel good for donors, but generally speaking, doesn’t involve communities that the money is supposed to serve. Let’s stop thinking that some of us have all the answers and know how to resolve issues in communities where we do not live nor in situations where we have no experience.
My social enterprise ships gently worn, used and new shoes to Haiti and other developing nations around the world. We provide a creative shoe drive fundraising opportunity for nonprofits and organizations that need to raise money in a way that’s different and unique. But, we operate as a social enterprise because I don’t pretend to know how people in those countries should live their lives and what they need.
I’ve traveled to developing nations like Haiti and others in Central America, and the people have told me, “We want opportunity. We want a partnership, but we don’t want you telling us how to do it.” So, I help them with an economic opportunity with the shoes so they can create their own economic opportunities. But, what I don’t do is tell them how to run their micro-enterprises. I don’t come in with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in inventory and presume to tell them what they need in their communities. I just give those who want it a bridge of opportunity a chance to have that––if they choose, and that’s all.
The Move to Social Justice Philanthropy
I’ve seen more and more discussion about social change philanthropy, and I hope it begins firmly to take root. Our current philanthropic model is old and dated. It rests on a principle that wealthy people know what’s good for the remainder of the world and it imposes their values and ways of thinking onto others. As someone who’s been on the ground in some of the poorest countries on the planet, this charitable model merely perpetuates a cycle of “have’s and have not’s.”
I believe we’ve got to end philanthropy as we know it and start shifting power from the wealthy to those with whom they partner. I think we need to build more bridges and destroy the pyramids that exist in our current charitable models; many times they don’t serve anyone well but the donors.
Author of “Not Your Father’s Charity: Grip & Rip Leadership for Social Impact” (Free Digital Download)
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