Reflections on philanthropy, moral and otherwise

Peter Karoff

This issue of Alliance is on dangerous and radical ground. Dangerous because a gauntlet has been thrown down by guest editor Olga Alexeeva, who challenges the motivation and ethics of donors who appear not to practise what they preach, and whose theme of donor social responsibility is expanded upon by writers Rishi Khosla, Irina Prokhorova, Nabil Qaddumi and Barbara Ibrahim.

This issue of Alliance is also radical because it raises fundamental questions about the moral dimension of philanthropy and social action, questions remarkably absent from any serious discussion in the field of organized philanthropy, not just in the US but around the world. As donors, we have been drawn to management science and data-driven impact, as we should be, but we do not ask, or ask often enough, what our values and passions are.

Where does the moral conscience of the community lie, if not with us?

In The World We Want,[1] published in 2006, these were the underlying questions: where does the moral – or, if you prefer, ethical – conscience of the community lie, if not with us? What does philanthropy wish to be, and what could it be if the moral dimension were more clearly in focus? Where is philanthropy’s voice on the ‘wicked issues’ – social justice, systemic poverty and others?

According to the Ford Foundation, only 13 per cent of philanthropy in the US goes to poverty or social justice issues, and the percentages are even smaller globally. As I write this article, what haunts me is the report in last week’s New York Times that one out of seven people on the earth suffer from pervasive hunger, an increase in the past year of 100 million people!  
As individuals, as parents, as advocates, as professionals, as citizens, it is very hard to know what to do. Massive systemic social issues require multi-sector solutions, but we in the philanthropy world have both the opportunity – and arguably the obligation – to respond. So it is easy to be critical of what Olga Alexeeva calls ‘fashion philanthropy’ – versions of which are rampant in the US and in every society around the world.

Moving up the philanthropic curve

But, in the 20 years’ experience The Philanthropy Initiative has had working with hundreds of donors and over a billion dollars of philanthropy and social investment, I can report that preaching about moral issues doesn’t get you anywhere. What does get you somewhere is helping donors move up the philanthropic curve. 

The curve begins when you respond to requests – over time giving becomes part of your life, of who you are, and one of the roles you play in the community in which you live. You decide to get organized, you set up a foundation or a donor advised fund, and you begin to prioritize. Yet you are still ‘an inch deep and a mile wide’ so you become more strategic, more proactive instead of reactive. You begin to focus less on organizations and more on issues. Your goal is impact, results, going to scale, and you use measurement and evaluation as a tool to determine if you have actually made a difference. The highest operating level on the curve is leverage – even if you are Bill and Melinda Gates, the work demands networks and partners. So you build communities of interest, you cross sectors and find the intersection between government, market economy and philanthropy. In the final existential level of the curve, philanthropy is among the most satisfying aspects of your life, and you have learned to use your wealth, your passions and your skills to make the world a better place.

I would make the case that those who today may be in the ‘fashion philanthropy’ business do have the potential to learn, grow, and move up the curve. What would increase those odds is more focus on expanding what is called our moral imagination, including: 

  • increasing the understanding that philanthropy and social action are at their core the responsibility and opportunity of private action in the public space;
  • addressing how philanthropy should respond to the changing roles of government and the potential of the market economy in the resolution of social dilemmas;
  • strengthening the ethical relationship between donors and recipients;
  • helping those in the field become better able to recognize and confront ethical dilemmas in their work;
  • creating a learning community of donors and civil society organizations that address questions around mission, purpose, practice and the inner journey of those who work in this field.

Finding common moral ground

Perhaps this ‘dangerous and radical’ issue of Alliance is a first step towards exactly that kind of learning community – but finding universal moral ground is tricky at best. This issue of Alliance has contributors from Russia, Ukraine, the Arab world, Brazil, India, Europe and America. What are the chances that, if we were to spend enough time together, we would find common moral ground? My guess is that we would differ in a thousand ways, but that we could come together around four tracks of inquiry and dialogue.

Integrity of purpose  What are the implications of presuming to intervene in lives and communities other than our own? What are the Muslim and Hindu equivalents of being a Good Samaritan? What is the relationship between our mission as donors and the recipients and/or communities of interests being served?  Is there such a thing as a hierarchy of good and how do we determine it?

Integrity of process  How do we reconcile moral purpose and moral action? The day-to-day practical challenges of doing the right thing while remaining faithful to mission can easily trip us up, as can a failure to be aware of the unintended consequences of our actions. We also need ways to monitor and evaluate ethical practice as well as impact.

Integrity of philanthropy in the public space  Given what is called the ‘thin notion of public life’ in all societies, philanthropy has a responsibility to act on the big issues of our time, and its role in this respect transcends donor intent or organizational mission.

The inner journey  This is about using and developing one’s moral imagination, creating a moral compass, working on one’s own ‘stuff’ and finding meaning through giving – and ultimately, a transformation of the human heart.

Philanthropy is a remarkably flexible tool with few limitations. With its privileges come serious societal responsibilities. Focusing on impact or focusing on values alone is not sufficient. It is in the intersection of these two complementary quadrants that the opportunity lies. If we elevate and sustain the conversation, this has the potential to elevate the entire field.

Robert Wright wrote that ‘history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth’. Wright also has perhaps the best definition of moral imagination – ‘our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another’.[2]

At its core, the business of philanthropy and social action is an exercise in putting oneself in another’s shoes.

TPI came out of a fascination that I have always had with why some people are generous and others are not, and why some companies seem to do the right thing, while others are stuck in the sand. Our hope was that the generosity gene could be encouraged and nurtured though motivation and strategic thinking. And this has proved to be the case, not only in the TPI experience but in the highly energized infrastructure that now supports philanthropy both in the US and abroad. I am still obsessed with those original fascinations, and the authors who have contributed to this issue of Alliance are clearly fascinated as well.

1 Peter Karoff with Jane Maddox (2006) The World We Want – New Dimensions in Philanthropy and Social Change AltaMira Press.

2 From Robert Wright (2009) The Evolution of God Little Brown and Company.

Peter Karoff is the founder and chairman of The Philanthropic Initiative, Inc, working around the world to help individuals, foundations and corporations achieve deep social impact. Email 

Some thoughts from the practical visionaries quoted in The World We Want

  • Acknowledge that people know what they need. Help individuals find their own power and take control of their own destiny.
  • Seek out the assets that every community has, build on them and celebrate. Make heroes of those who do this work.
  • Find the alignment between self-interest and the common good. When there is none, push back and stand firm.
  • Break out of the box. Use all available resources and innovation from every sector – business, citizen, government, non-profit – to get the work done.
  • Do whatever it takes – disruption, confrontation, jujitsu, logic, data, advocacy, and travelling the parallel tracks. The tactics and strategies are endless.
  • Abandon comfort. Raise the bar. Put your whole self in, and hold the moral conscience of your community dear.
  • Open it up; open yourself up. Provide building blocks for others to make their own dreams come true.
  • To truly love, you must touch.

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