Recently, I tuned in to the WINGS Forum debate on philanthropy and power. It was an articulate and lively panel. However, most of the discussion was about how philanthropy is coming to terms with uncomfortable notions of its own power – how foundations and funds are including grantees in their decision-making process, for example.
It’s a discussion worth having, but on another question, that of philanthropy’s relationship to political and economic power in the societies in which it operates, almost nothing was said. It almost never is. Philanthropy commentators and practitioners will remark on how its resources derive from unequal systems of wealth creation and distribution but philanthropy insiders seldom talk about whether what they are doing with those resources is simply helping to maintain the status quo by palliating its worst abuses. While it might be raised as a question, it seldom receives an answer. It’s as if simply naming it means that you don’t have to talk about it. It’s like a charm, a propitiatory formula to ward off the anger of the god before the worshipper enters the sanctum.
Objectors to the palliative hypothesis might argue that philanthropy comprehends many approaches and intentions and that any blanket description of what it is or does is misconceived. For example, there’s an obvious divided between institutional philanthropy (the sense in which pundits most often use the word) and individual philanthropy – generally, small donors giving modest amounts. Let’s call them Big Phil and Little Phil, for the sake of whimsy. They have very different characters, though, as an aside, commentators often point to the merits of Little Phil (solidarity, compassion, the idea of redistribution among equals and so on) to deflect criticism of Big Phil (its power without accountability, the questionable source of its assets).
Philanthropy commentators and practitioners will remark on how its resources derive from unequal systems of wealth creation and distribution but philanthropy insiders seldom talk about whether what they are doing with those resources is simply helping to maintain the status quo by palliating its worst abuses.
In any case, the objectors might point out, the sector has this new (or now, not so new) buzzword, systems-change philanthropy which seems, on the face of it, to involve a rejection of some element of the status quo. But how much of it? An article in last year’s March edition of Alliance takes a root-and-branch attitude, and talks of ‘a political economy that favors the concentration of profits and privileges of a few over the well-being of the vast majority of the planet’s life forms. That is the “system” that systemic change philanthropy has to change.’ This smacks a bit too much of ‘the System’ which was the bogey of the counter-culture in the 1960s and 70s and while the influential might at times be capable of acting in concert, the idea that ‘the system’ is controlled and directed by a few, or at most, a few hundred, individuals acting according to a plan and in unscrupulous pursuit of their own interests seems far-fetched. In any case, this meta-system would be comprised of many others, each with its own characteristics and sustained by differing combinations of interest, apathy, habit, ignorance, inertia (a sort of internal logic that means once you’ve set the machinery in motion, it runs of its own accord) and the fact that, in the past, the system has either worked or worked well enough so it hasn’t aroused enough opposition to reject it.
But whether you see one system or many, something they have in common is that challenging them sooner or later brings you up against those in whose interests they function. Sometimes those interests will be very powerful indeed and sometimes, tinkering with system won’t be enough. It will have to be scrapped – systems-change becomes systems-overthrow. With this in mind, the original question of philanthropy and its relationship with the status quo now looks less easy to leave on one side, especially if you claim to be a systems-change funder (and few funders would deny this publicly without blushing). In fact, to be clear, I believe there are three questions that each funder needs to answer: what system or systems are you trying to change, what change is needed and how far are you prepared to go to make it?
Andrew Milner is Associate Editor at Alliance.