How strategic is charitable giving?


John D Gerhart Center


Karim Shalaby

Whenever ‘strategic’ is used with philanthropy, it’s usually to differentiate it from that other giving – charitable giving. Strategic philanthropy is thought to be more sophisticated and impactful.[1] ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time.’ Lao Tzu

It irks me that we do not critically examine this comparison. The attention to strategic philanthropy is detracting from the essential importance of charitable giving. Such is my observation, at least, of the public debate. Our food donations, financial handouts, clothes donations, medicinal donations and provision of shelter are seen as inferior. For some, these are considered part of the problem. Or an obstacle to the solution itself.

All the while, to consider just one target for charity – food donations – around the world the numbers who are undernourished or facing malnutrition, hunger or starvation are on the rise. And markedly so since the announcement of the MDG 1, ‘Eradicate Extreme poverty and Hunger’, back in 2000. The decade of attention to strategic approaches has brought us very little. More people than ever now go to bed hungry: 925 million[2]. More people than ever now are obese.

Neither charitable nor strategic giving are yet providing real impact against hunger, the most fundamental of human needs. The same charge of a disappointing lack of change can be levied at both strategic social investments and charity to address income and its disparities. In my view, both approaches suffer from anaemic implementation processes.

I’d like to focus this time on the process, rather than jump to comparing results. While strategic approaches target long-term sustainable and structural change, charitable interventions are viewed as focused on short-term relief. For good or bad, I am a process man. ‘Strategic’ should be about effectiveness of the process, not the type of giving. Forms of giving normally termed as charitable, in my view, can be the most strategic.

Staying with food for the moment, it is our under-appreciation of the strategic significance of food provision and feeding those in need that makes our results disappointing. When we address these issues ‘strategically’, more often than not feeding the hungry is foregone for developing the ability to feed oneself. As far as relief is concerned, it’s only ‘for a day’. A day, or even a meal, is the scope of our involvement and thus it is seen as the result. If it is not relief, food giving is carried out in a charitable fashion to solve today’s problem.

Giving food should be viewed as strategic in my view for this reason: until we satisfy that most essential basic need, it remains an obstacle to the pursuit of all other needs for self-actualization, for what it means to be human.

The litmus test of food giving on the strategic scale is not difficult. We have witnessed what hunger does to individuals and have seen its effects on entire societies in the pursuit of progress. It also manifests itself in more subtle ways than the screaming starkness of starvation. Hunger, malnutrition and undernourishment seep through the income classes, beyond even the notorious $1 a day line, to have negative multiplier effects on health, income generation and education. That’s on the personal level. It also manifests in public realms as communities are profoundly affected. Somalia is currently one heart-wrenching example.

Were we to give due consideration to food giving through our commitment, engagement, scale of interventions, targeting, sourcing and distribution, I am convinced that this charitable avenue would have real strategic impact on the change we are trying to make.

That is the philosophy that drives the Egyptian Food Bank, an alliance of NGOs providing millions of meals and building local capacity in the process. In Curitiba, donated fruits are squeezed into the diets of the poor in exchange for their garbage collection and sorting. (In contrast, the staple package for those who receive governmental subsidized food commodities in Egypt contains carbohydrates, oil and tea!) Look at the difference in approaches in these examples. They all involve giving food, but the first two strike me as eminently strategic.

Next time I would like to get to that public-versus-private nexus in philanthropy. Philanthropy is the act of giving private money for public good. Are we practising that and is it strategic?

For this mind storm I would like to thank many but will mention my brother Mohamed for his stimulating initiative and hope this will add to the ongoing discussion.

[1] My co-authors and I tried to make the case for a continuum rather than a dichotomy in our book, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy, Cairo: AUC Press, 2009.

[2] According to FAO statistical sources for 2010. This is lower than the 2009 record number of over a billion, but recording a constant increase over the last decade.

Karim Shalaby is the Philanthropy Advisor at the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement

Tagged in: Charitable giving Millennium Development Goals Strategic giving

Comments (3)

Karim S. Shalaby

I agree with you completely. Food and feeding is a very strategic significant niche. Its absence and, as we are fast learning, its excess are equally detrimental to human and societal development. Whether it be stunting or increased risk of heart disease, we pay dearly for misaligned relations to a basic human activity , one we carry out daily. Feeding is in it self a strategic intervention, there is no denying its significance as safety net. Exactly for its strategic position that it is a means to engage the recipients beyond an intervention to interacting with them. Engage them for a longer term, even if only around feeding, so that they can secure a mindset beyond subsistence. Engage them beyond feeding to empower them out of the disabling trap they are made needy by. Engage them beyond their need and address their capacities, assets and potentials. Engaging is also a means to streamline the targeting for those truly deserving with hopefully higher efficiency resource utilization. The idea I am advocating for is one of inclusion and engaged interaction not of exclusion and intervention. The quintessential strategics of 'charity' is in the follow through; therefore doing away , if not even, reversing the associations of strategy and charity to specific types of giving. This would have huge impact on donor engagement, let alone impact on beneficiaries. In Egypt the equivalent of soup kitchens are the food tables. These play an important social net role, but they are highly interventionist and marred with high inefficiency in both targeting and management. The Egyptian Food Bank model is built around follow though and commitment to responsibility to that strategic need and role in human development, feeding.


Your examples of strategic giving in a specific context (Egyptian Food Bank) support the argument against the effectiveness of the MDGs. These goals have buzzwords that present a "cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all" recipe to charitable giving around the world and ignore culture, language, politics and power. Being strategic in giving and thus empowering means being aware of specific contexts and needs without which will cause more harm than good.

George McCully

Excellent article, strong questions. But the suggestion that charitable giving has not "provided real impact against hunger" needs refinement. Every day many millions of people are fed by hundreds of thousands of small food pantries and soup kitchens, backed up by hundreds of food bank networks across America. In the case of charitable giving, mobilizing large numbers of volunteers and unspectacular but significant small and large donors fills a strategically significant niche in our nation's safety net. The fact that only a few of the food charities are even visible statistically should not conceal their substantial contribution to our welfare.

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