Solidarity and reciprocity: a basis for strategic philanthropy?


Ben Eyre

Ben Eyre

Ben Eyre

‘A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction,’ Mary Douglas says in her introduction to the 2002 edition of Marcel Mauss’s seminal text The Gift.

In that 1925 essay French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) revolutionised our understanding of gift relationships, and how societies are bound together.

Is philanthropy (and philanthropists/poids) missing something? There is more high-profile, considered and substantial giving by individuals today than ever before. But less solidarity between those who give and those they give to than for generations.

The physical barrier between people around the world is shrinking, but the gulf between the rich and the poor is expanding at a rapid rate, whether they are in London, Lagos or Sao Paulo.

So far, the resurgence of philanthropy has done little to combat this. Many are suspicious of philanthropists’ motivations as well as the ways in which wealth is accumulated.

Surely that shouldn’t be the prevailing view. Philanthropy has supported scientific discoveries, technological advancements, and societal changes that have transformed the world. Understanding and pursuing solidarity is key, I believe.

Philanthropy and solidarity

The Oxford English Dictionary defines solidarity as ‘unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group’.

On the surface it might seem that the opportunity for unity and common interest among those who have the resources to give and those who have a need for support is limited.

But donors and beneficiaries have something very important in common: both engage in the gift relationship to improve life. The goal might not be well defined or agreed upon, but it is the only unifying factor that is guaranteed, and a strong one.

One of Mauss’s great leaps of thought in The Gift was considering a gift relationship in a similar way to a transactional relationship: through the lens of reciprocity.

In a transaction, buyer and seller both further their personal agenda, effective marshalling of resources, and information exchange through their interaction, at least in theory. Mauss’s analysis of diverse cultures and legal systems demonstrated that giving creates reciprocity too. There is no set price or time frame for the receiver to reciprocate the gift, but the need to engage in the cycle is just as real as in a transaction.

Underpinning reciprocity in a gift relationship is the embodiment of the giver within a gift – people are ‘giving of themselves’. This concept resonates with modern-day philanthropy.

Never just about money, philanthropy is about the personal qualities of the individuals who give, as well as their mission and ideals. It is also about fulfilling needs or enabling rights, capabilities and choices.

Reciprocity as a basis for innovation, sustainability and scale

Reciprocity seems like a negative concept. Someone with surplus wealth disperses it, along with a need to reciprocate, to another person with far less wealth. This could create shame and dependency. But, for Mauss, it is not a negative feature of giving. It binds societies together.

Clearly, in a relationship between the richest and the poorest in the world, the opportunity for financial reciprocity is limited. But money is not the only thing of value to either party – far from it.

Material reciprocity is the basis of innovation, sustainability and scale in a transaction. By considering the nature of the reciprocity that donors desire, and that beneficiaries can offer, the opportunity to achieve these qualities through philanthropy can be unlocked.

Types of reciprocity that philanthropy giving can engender include:

  • Gratitude. Philanthropy can open new and often very grand doors, and justify gongs, honours and graces. Crucially it also offers an opportunity to learn, gain insight and expand horizons.
  • Encouraging others to give through shame or inspiration: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge is a powerful case in point.
  • Another type of reciprocity – the most nebulous, valuable and difficult – is information exchange. It can prompt recipients to communicate their needs, hopes and dreams to donors. In doing just this they can help fulfil donors’ own.

CAF’s executive education programme for philanthropy, Foundation School, features site visits that boost all these aspects of reciprocity in positive ways. It’s the third and most quixotic that gets donors buzzing.

Gift relationships enable innovation, sustainability and scale when they allow recipients a voice, and power, through reciprocal obligation. Outsized impact is possible through reciprocity. In fact it relies upon it.

Social justice philanthropy, at the heart of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Charitable Trust and other Quaker foundations, along with community philanthropy, supported by UK Community Foundations and the Global Fund for Community Foundations, show the potential for impact when the relationship between donor and recipient changes.

Other innovators have built tools to embrace solidarity and reciprocity across all stages of the giving journey:

  • Impact analysts Keystone Accountability, who focus on ‘constituents,’ who they deliberately do not refer to as beneficiaries, to detect transformation that matters.
  • Voucher systems allow users to act as consumers and express a preference when accessing donated goods or services.
  • IDEO’s human-centred design theory puts users at the heart of programme design.
  • The World Bank’s Voice of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear US, published in 2000, put the words of poor people into a report on their needs, hopes and desires, and onto the desks of many donors. By looking at the their perceptions, the book helps empower those interviewed for it, and those who read it.

Improved theoretical focus translated into practical action can be the basis of greater innovation, sustainability, and scale. The possibilities of strategic philanthropy guided by theories of gift exchange are enormous. I intend to explore how, and why, in subsequent posts and articles.

Ben Eyre is a private client advisor for CAF Philanthropy Services

For more on solidarity, listen to our Alliance Audio podcast: Solidarity & Philanthropy.

Tagged in: Mutual benefit Reciprocity Solidarity Strategic Philanthropy

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