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. ‘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. 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.
 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.
 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