Philanthropy must end its self-imposed isolation


Amanda Aguilar


I just finished reading The (continuing) enigma of Kaspar Hauser article by Alliance’s Andrew Milner, castigating the philanthropic sector’s self-imposed isolation from the people it is supposed to serve.

I’m so happy that Alliance is acknowledging this problem. As someone who has had the privilege of experiencing both sides of the philanthropy world – the world of the givers and that of the receivers – it was enlightening, but not at all surprising, to fully comprehend just how far removed philanthropy professionals can be.

Most philanthropy professionals are not in the sector because they rose up out of the gritty mud of poverty and are now reaching their hands back to their fellow kin, back to a world they fully understand. Such lack of lived experience leaders from marginalised communities is a huge issue that goes largely ignored. Because how do you help a world you’ve never been in, you haven’t experienced and you don’t understand? This is why so many philanthropic efforts fail. Because these philanthropists who are patting themselves on the back haven’t done enough or care enough to really understand what the people they are supposedly helping actually need.

The new director for the Yolo County Library, a public library system in California where I’ve worked for several years, once told a story about working with an organization to collect books for an impoverished village in a developing country to help build a library. Only once they got there did they realize that no one spoke English and all of the books they had hauled over from California were in English. I don’t resent anyone for having to learn this lesson the hard way, but it certainly astounds me. Of all the people who worked to organize this mission, of every community member who congratulated themselves on how generous they were after donating a book or two to an impoverished child countries away, and not a single one of them considered the fact that this other county’s native language was not English? It just makes me imagine how many times incidents like this must have happened and are still happening across the world of philanthropy. How many people are losing out because of it?

Philanthropy needs to find new ways to give the voiceless a voice. One suggestion in Milner’s piece is to allow them to fill and edit an entire issue with their stories, their perspectives, their truths, which is a most laudable idea. Because while Milner writes that these philanthropy receivers may not ‘write in the pseudo-academic argot we’ve come to prefer,’ I would never doubt their ability to tell their own stories in the most beautiful and compelling of ways.

We live in an era of great change, and most of the changes happening around us are not for the better. This is an opportunity for the philanthropy sector to rise up, to show the world there is still goodness and humanity in the world. And you do not show this by continuing to rip the microphone out of the hands of the young and marginalised. It is by giving them the microphone and leaving the stage that you finally reveal your selflessness, because the stage has always been for them. It’s time to step off, no matter how difficult that may be.

Amanda Aguilar is a recent journalism graduate at the University of California, Davis and was an Alliance editorial intern in London in 2017

Comments (1)

Stephen Viederman

If foundations learned to listen rather than talk, the situation might be better.

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