What is Philanthropy?
A meeting I recently had made me reflect on the nature of philanthropy, and thus of our roles as fundraisers.
At the healthcare clown organisation in Barcelona where I work as a “major donor” fundraiser, we had invited a donor family (grandparents, daughters, grandchildren) to meet a young man who has spent many years in and out of hospitals and treatments.
It was a classic donor event, designed to help the donor understand how his donation was to be used, and to help the grandchildren, approximately the same age as our young ambassador, to understand the relevance of their family’s philanthropy.
What I had not considered was the impact of our young ambassador’s talk. He spoke directly, talking with absolute honesty about his feelings, good and bad, about his illness and treatments, and about the positive effect of the healthcare clowns.
It was a powerful, emotional talk that left many of us with a tear in the eye.
But discussing the event afterwards with colleagues, I could detect a certain unease around the idea of putting together a wealthy, powerful family with a young man, fighting for his life, from the opposite end of the economic spectrum.
This unease is one of the dilemmas of fundraising. It is crystallised in two views of philanthropy.
Philanthropy as Power
One view positions philanthropy as a way of expressing power; “I am rich and powerful, and I’m going to remind you of that fact by being philanthropic towards you.”
This view of philanthropy, or more accurately of gift giving, comes from early anthropological studies, led by Malinowski’s study of reciprocal giving – the “Kula” system – in the peoples of the Trobriand Islands. The person giving the gift has a higher status than the person receiving it. Philanthropy is a way of expressing power over another.
This view requires that you situate the person of wealth in a position of power. In the stereotype, that is of course the case: rich = powerful. But at Tuesday’s event a more subtle balance became visible; our young ambassador was powerful because his lived experience – frightening and painful as it was – was richer than that of the donor. He had a depth of humanity that no-one else in that room could match. This view of power-philanthropy did not, for me, match the feeling in the room.
Philanthropy, for the status quo
A second view of philanthropy has been growing in popularity in recent years. In this version, the rich are philanthropic because it benefits them directly.
This view of philanthropy has appeared as the gap between rich and poor widens, and as professional fundraising for institutions that benefit people of wealth (Oxbridge, the Ivy League universities, opera houses…) develops.
Anand Giridharadas has led the charge against this philanthropy, arguing in “Winners Take All” that a large share of giving in the USA consists of wealthy people donating to their children’s schools, or alumni giving to their alma mater.
According to Rob Reich, this only worsens the already “savage inequality” in US education; a Financial Times report on his book noted that:
“California’s wealthiest school district raises more private donations per child than the state’s poorest districts spend in total on their pupils.”
But the event on Tuesday did not seem to match this view of philanthropy, either. I have no doubt that the wealthy family use private healthcare facilities here in Barcelona; the healthcare clowns, by contrast, only work in public healthcare, meaning that the clowns are working day-to-day with people at the other end of the economy. The values of the organisation mean that it does not benefit the rich, directly.
There are (at least) two other ways of viewing philanthropy.
Philanthropy, a basic need
For me, philanthropy is a basic human need. People in all sorts of circumstances – even in, or perhaps especially in, the most desperate conditions – are philanthropic, caring for, helping, or giving to their fellow humans. People need to be philanthropic.
For the rich, in one sense, it’s easy. Just give money away and you’re good. But of course it’s not like that. The poor woman who helps her neighbour gets something back – the loosely defined “warm glow” in the literature on philanthropy.
But for the rich, whose wealth can be isolating, the personal contact with the beneficiary and that “warm glow” can be difficult to achieve.
Tuesday’s event achieved this; physical contact, interaction in a small space (and some clowning around) achieved a really warm glow for our philanthropic family, satisfying their need to be philanthropic.
Philanthropy as communication
There is a fourth view of philanthropy, which was also borne out at the event. The philanthropic act, properly managed, is a channel of communication.
I have never had a life-threatening condition, never spent more than 48 hours in a hospital. I have no real understanding, either at an intellectual or an emotional level, of what it must be like to spend your entire adolescence in and out of hospital. Our young ambassador has all this experience. He is a witness to the awful trials of long-term illness.
The philanthropic act enabled the donor family to hear his voice, directly, to contact him in a wholly human way, without the intermediation of video or screen. It was pure human communication, two-way interaction, an intense experience for everyone present.
Something similar is true for the Oxfam donor who visits a project in Africa, or the Cancer Research donor who spends time in a laboratory. The act of philanthropy creates a special form of communication in which each side has a commitment to the other.
The Conundrum of Fundraising
Fundraisers walk the high-wire. We work between all of these views of philanthropy, trying to do good for the people and causes we serve.
In organising a meeting between a wealthy, powerful philanthropist and a teenager with a life-threatening condition, are we in danger of creating or maintaining a power relationship (giver-powerful, receiver-weak) that undermines the values of our organisation or undercuts the social change we are trying to achieve?
Yes, is the honest answer, but only if we allow it to happen. A badly managed encounter between philanthropist and “beneficiary” can easily fall into this power imbalance.
Focusing on satisfying everyone’s basic need to be philanthropic, and on philanthropy as communication, can help you avoid the power trap.
But above all, thinking about the values of your organisation, and organising your event around those values, is the key to keeping philanthropy, and fundraising, on the high-wire.
If you would like to donate to healthcare clowns in Catalonia, visit www.pallapupas.org.