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Philanthropy for social change: a response to Michael Edwards

Resource type: News

OpenDemocracy |

By Gara LaMarche

Michael Edwards, in his openDemocracy essay ” Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush” (20 March 2008), raises an important and necessary voice of concern about trends in philanthropy that have received too little scrutiny to date – either because, as is often the case with donors of whatever variety, those hopeful for or dependent on their largesse fear to speak out, or because others are caught up in the latest vogue, hesitant to step away from the herd and ask if perhaps the newest “emperor” is a bit underdressed. I agree with much of his article but think it misses the mark or overstates the case in a few instances, so I will concentrate on my differences of emphasis or tone.

It is wrong to pose what Edwards calls “philanthrocapitalism” against traditional philanthropy, because much of his critique is as applicable as well to the large established foundations, which have hardly been in the vanguard of social movements. Notwithstanding the role played by a few small foundations like the Taconic Foundation or the Field Foundation in aiding the civil-rights movement in the United States, or some of the Ford Foundation’s work in the 1970s and since with respect to the women’s movement, the major social upheavals in the US in the 20th century owe little to philanthropy. The gay-rights movement, for example, got as far as it did, decades after the Stonewall protests of June 1969, with barely a dime from foundations. Meaningful social change that upsets the established social order will rarely receive – at least not in the critical earlier stages – support from establishment institutions, which join if at all at a later, safer point. The exceptions are few.

It is worth pointing out too that the strongest and most enduring non-governmental and civil-society institutions in the US – such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, and organising movements like Acorn (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – endure and grow based on a large base of relatively small individual donors and members, however much they have benefitted (once their existence is secured) from targeted foundation support.

That is not to say traditional foundations play no role in social change. They can at times be catalytic – think of Gunnar Myrdal’s Carnegie-commissioned report on racism, An American Dilemma, or George Soros’s support for opening up the debate on drug-policy reform. But foundations are not where social movement comes from; and in this respect the newer brand of venture capitalists resemble the older foundations they are beginning to overshadow.

What is different about the newer philanthropists, apart in some instances from scale and from a general resistance to social controversy, is the emphasis on measurability, on incorporating lessons from the business world. I agree this has been over-hyped. And yet, as one who recently made the transition from a more intuitive foundation to one more grounded in evaluation data, and who often deals with individuals of wealth who have progressive social values but need to have demonstrated to them the impact of funding for advocacy and social policy, I think social-justice advocates and the relatively few foundations that fund them have until recently failed in any serious way to engage these concerns. If we do not, we will not expand the pool of funders for human-rights projects, anti-poverty work and the like.

That doesn’t mean that we should all become bean-counters, or adopt the mind-numbing jargon of the corporate world. But it does mean we should take control of the “evaluation” discussion and work together to forge tools that can communicate the importance and impact of social-justice philanthropy to those who are not already singing from the hymnbook.

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ACLU, Gara LaMarche