The elephant in philanthropy’s room


Vanessa Meachen and Philanthropy Australia

Vanessa Meachen

Vanessa Meachen

Caroline Hartnell’s post of 14 October, Do we really want to entrust our futures to a growing group of benevolent dictators? Just asking… struck a real chord for me, particularly given the context of what’s happening on both the global and Australian stages over the past few weeks.

As I write this, the Occupy Wall Street movement is still going strong in the United States with its call for a more equitable distribution of wealth and a lessening of corporate power over government; Australian of the Year Simon McKeon is arguing that the social contract has broken down and equality of opportunity has fallen by the wayside; entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith is threatening to ‘out’ his wealthy counterparts who don’t engage in giving; and our local philanthropic community in Melbourne has experienced a lively public debate, recorded for later broadcast on national radio, ‘Philanthropy: Does it reinforce the distinction between the haves and the have-nots?’

All these debates and situations are dominated by permutations of the same issue; the relationship between money and power. It’s something that as a sector we usually tiptoe around; it’s difficult not to, especially if you are one of the ‘philanthrocrats’, making a living from encouraging and facilitating philanthropic giving. Questioning the sector that provides one with one’s livelihood is problematic, especially when we know that the majority of trustees and individual philanthropists are intelligent, compassionate, well-informed people who are acutely aware of the privileged position they occupy. And with the high levels of public cynicism about philanthropic giving, it’s better to focus on the myriad of undoubtedly positive things philanthropy does.

The power imbalance is therefore something of an elephant in the room; we all know it’s there but we rarely talk about it. Perhaps that’s because we feel there isn’t much that can be done about the elephant, or that it’s not our place to point it out – or that pointing it out would be ultimately self-defeating. We want high net worth individuals to give and to engage in their communities; guilt and criticism don’t seem like good motivators for giving, especially when it’s undoubtedly simpler to keep it than give it away. We encourage philanthropists to have or acquire a broad range of skills and knowledge – not to mention time, patience, open-mindedness and a sense of community – in order to ‘do’ philanthropy well. Isn’t that enough of a burden without focusing on power?

At the same time, there is plenty of discussion about how difficult it can be for grantees to criticize grantmakers, or about the fact that no matter how ill-conceived a philanthropist’s pet project, some organisation will be happy to carry it out if there is funding. Many of us have seethed with fellow-feeling when reading blog posts about having to manage the expectations of newcomers to the sector who argue that giving is simple, or that the not-for-profit sector could solve all its problems if it would just be more businesslike.

We value the diversity, independence and flexibility of philanthropy, and the huge number of approaches that are possible when there are thousands of individual foundations; at the same time, we also want there to be large foundations, which are well-resourced enough to provide economies of scale, to measure their impact effectively and to use their knowledge as much as their money. But how large is too large? At what point does a foundation, or an individual philanthropist, become so powerful and influential that they dominate or direct matters that are best controlled by democratically elected leaders?

I don’t think there is a solution or an ideal way of approaching this issue, much as human nature drives me to seek a simple solution – but I do think we need to acknowledge the issue. The relationship between donor and recipient can be messy and complicated for a number of reasons; power is only one, but it’s an important one. The recent Alliance magazine focusing on the Gates Foundation and its massive global influence has perhaps thrown light on something that happens on a smaller scale in many sectors or communities. I wonder whether philanthropy needs a code of conduct that explicitly addresses the issues of power – no matter what the donor’s size.

Vanessa Meachen is director of research and policy for Philanthropy Australia

Tagged in: australia Donor relationships Gates Foundation Occupy Wall Street

Comments (1)

Christopher Baker

Terrific contribution Vanessa. Sharp reflections and it acknowledges the complexities involved. I was disturbed at the recent Philanthropy debate held in Melbourne that the prevailing theme seemed to be to criticise HNW individuals who give. I was depressed at such a simplistic stance. Those HNWIs who give are very much in the minority, so if we want to be critical of people in relation to their contributions, let us not confine the bulk of that criticism to those who do give rather than those who do not! I am not arguing for an open book on arrogance and hubris for donors, I am arguing for a more considered response to the challenges at hand. Your description of how the "relationship between donor and recipient can be messy and complicated" is much more accurate and meaningful. Your suggestion of a code of conduct is a good one. The one caveat is that such a code is most likely to be referenced and complied with, by those who are already aware of managing their behaviour and their relationships. Those who don't pay attention to such things, those who don't care, may not be that influenced by a code. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking piece. Christopher

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