The real issue: foundations’ lack of power

Pier Mario Vello

Stephen Pittam’s article ‘The Power of Money’ (Alliance, 1 September) is intriguing and multifaceted. The few remarks I make here are more of a reinforcement of his arguments than an addition to them.

In my view, inequality is a much more important issue for philanthropy than levels of poverty. Today we face two crucial challenges: social inequality – within countries and between different world regions – and the lack of social/economic mobility. The combination of these two has led broad population groups to become the low-price labour tapped by the industrialized and wealthy; those who are born poor are likely to remain poor for the rest of their lives.

Philanthropy cannot change the status quo. It is certainly true that foundations, especially those with large assets, often appear arrogant and superficial when dealing with their grantees. They exercise the power of money. However, in my opinion, the real issue with foundations is not their exercise of power but rather their lack of power vis-à-vis the problems they strive to tackle. They are not powerful enough to change the social policies that have caused – and are still causing – inequality and lack of social mobility, driven by the power of governments and markets.

Philanthropy can successfully fight inequality and the lack of social mobility only if there is a change in power relationships among those who can make change happen, ie government, market and philanthropy. The latter can play a strategic role today by catalysing external forces and orienting their focus on social agendas where civil society is the top priority.

A letter is too short for the breadth and depth of analysis this topic deserves. I’d simply like to reiterate that the development of our democracies and of a more balanced society necessarily requires the strengthening of civil society, of which philanthropy (together with schools, universities, independent media, etc) is one voice. This is true both for western countries that are striving to defend their prosperity and for developing countries that are striving to build it.

We should understand that we may have a hundred universities, a thousand labs, countless perfect industrial works, flourishing trade, and still be barbarians. We should understand a very simple truth, that civilization is not the fruit of what we know but the fruit of the way we act. Civilization is not the result of science, techniques and mechanisms that can serve either good or evil purposes; it is the result of the sentiments that make up the fabric of a society.

Philanthropy – relative to governments or markets – is the only space where these ideas can be conceived and grow. Sure, there is still a long way to go.

Pier Mario Vello
Secretary general, Cariplo Foundation

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