Philanthropy and the problem of the Outer Commons


Hilary Pearson


As I look around at the lack of political consensus on what to do about poverty, public health or climate, and as I listen to the arguments and debates in the media, I do wonder where and whether we might have agreement on what is the common good. Is there a common good?  Or are we moving to very different views of what is in the best interest of the ‘commons’? And if so, what can philanthropy do about it?

These questions are addressed in two recent, very thoughtful articles in journals which typically focus on philanthropy and social purpose. Alliance magazine published a piece by the American nonprofit and philanthropic leader Clara Miller, who wrote about the erosion of what she calls the ‘outer commons’.  The Stanford Social Innovation Review published a reflective but also passionate piece by Mark Kramer and Steve Phillips, Where Strategic Philanthropy Went Wrong.  Both pieces in different ways discuss the role of philanthropy in pursuing the public good. And both would be good input for a discussion around foundation board tables.

Miller walks through historical concepts of the ‘common good’ on the North American continent, providing an unusual perspective to the conversations in philanthropy about ‘public good’.  Indeed, she quotes a Canadian historian Allan Greer who has written about the history of early Canada from pre-colonial to first settler days. Greer is interested in concepts of property as a way of understanding the idea of what is held ‘in common’.

Miller quotes Greer as describing three aspects of land use, which were common to Indigenous and settler communities alike: individual spaces or homes, an ‘inner commons’ of shared space within a community, and an ‘outer commons’, or lands outside a community.

The outer commons, as Greer and Miller point out, were where the strongest conflicts among parties took place in pre-colonial and colonial societies. Miller notes that ‘the concept that everyone is entitled to a commonly held, non-proprietary resource base for the necessities of life remains the scene of conflict today’.  And so, ‘North Americans have evolved away from an early tradition of sharing to today’s environment of continually contested values.’

Applying the idea of shared spaces to our current context, Miller suggests that the privatization of public goods such as water, the air waves, hospitals and schools (particularly in the American context) and the abandonment of unwritten rules that guided political consensus and behavior in past years constitute a violation of our ‘outer commons’.  In this situation, the role of philanthropy is to try to restore the ‘outer commons’ by offsetting the negative impact of privatizing social supports.

She generalizes in her argument about North American philanthropy in a way that I don’t think recognizes sufficiently the different political and social approaches of Canada and the United States around the state role in maintaining the public good (through policy, funding and regulation). But she puts her finger on the pressure being felt by philanthropy in both countries to preserve or restore the ‘outer commons’.

What does this mean for philanthropic strategy? This is where the article by Kramer and Phillips takes Miller’s reflection further. In fact, they stand on its head the idea that philanthropy can itself do something meaningful to preserve the ‘outer commons’. No amount of philanthropic direct spending on the biggest social challenges we face, say Kramer and Phillips, has made ‘discernible progress on poverty, educational disparities, housing shortages, racial inequity and climate change.’

One could dispute this at the margin, but it is true that the resources of private philanthropy will never be enough to overcome these complex problems. The whole charitable sector does not have the resources.  As Kramer and Phillips point out, only government has those resources and mandate to preserve the ‘outer commons’ for the benefit of all.  But governments in the United States, the focus of the article, have made choices not to do so. In the view of the authors, this is because American governments are not representative of a multiracial population.  American democracy is flawed and must be repaired.

So, what should philanthropy do? They believe that it must be redirected from the approaches of so-called strategic and top-down grantmaking philanthropy to an approach that entails three goals: ‘ensuring a functioning democracy that is truly representative of our population, rejecting false and misleading social narratives that misdirect public opinion, and supporting the economic self-determination of those living in poverty.’ Concretely, this means funding efforts for civic and voter engagement and education, and funding community empowerment, economic self-determination, and individual agency.

Kramer and Phillips reject the traditional concepts of strategy. ‘There are no grand strategies or elaborate theories of change. Instead, we are recommending that funders support an open-ended process that enables people to define their own goals and discover their own solutions, uniquely situated to their needs and circumstances—solutions that may never occur to wealthy donors or outside experts.’

This is a powerful shift from a consultant such as Mark Kramer who has been associated with the idea of strategic philanthropy for decades.  He is pointing to an insight that many community development practitioners have long proclaimed. Philanthropy’s role should not (only) be to administer to needs (which can never be fully met by funders) but to recognize achievement, and support people on the path to success in their communities.  This is another approach to bringing about systemic change….not through addressing root causes directly but through empowering people and communities to fully access  and act on their democratic and human rights.

Although our two North American societies differ in the degree to which the balance has tipped from public to private provision of public goods, and to conservation of the ‘outer commons’, the suggestions for the role and priorities of philanthropy are applicable to both countries.  These two provocative and thoughtful articles are certainly food for thought in the Canadian context.

Hilary Pearson is the former President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada. She has served as co-chair of the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector, advising Canada’s Minister of Revenue on charity policy.

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