A few voices are (re)awakening to the realization that philanthropy is about public relations, not charity. But they aren't yet ready to abandon the myth of an independent third sector or civil society.
Testimony to the molasses-slow pace of information distribution in the nonprofit blogosphere, I am passing on a reference:
- Found in Nonprofiteer's blog (in July 2007) to an article by Michael Lerner
- that appeared on a blog called Gates Keepers in April 2007 (the blog seems to be a critique of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
- but which was originally an opinion piece in Alliance magazine in December 2006 called Light and Shadow in Organized Philanthropy
Rabbi Lerner leads a renewal synagogue in Berkeley California called Beyt Tikkun (EIN 94-3354385 Old Form 990, no current one because of religious exemption), who also publishes a magazine (Tikkun), which sponsors something called the Network of Spiritual Progressives. In light of these organizational connections, it's noteworthy what he has to say about philanthropy and civil society in the US. Some quotes from the article:
- The greatest shadow in organized philanthropy lies in the reality that the country with the largest philanthropic establishment has the worst records among the industrial countries with respect to health care, education, and other basic services to its citizens.
- Even in the social service sector, recent analyses indicate there is no net transfer of income from the wealthy to the less fortunate. This is true in terms of international as well as national grant making. In short, if we look at the sum total of the impact of the philanthropic establishment on American civil society, the evidence that ordinary Americans benefit from the substantial tax advantages provided to the wealthy to set up foundations is, at very best, controversial.
- One could also suggest that philanthropy lures the best and the brightest of those with ambitions to serve humanity away from careers in public service and towards this patchwork quilt of non-profit enterprises that rarely achieve critical mass in terms of real social reforms.
- [T]he only truly major foundation-sponsored social reform of the last half century in the US was the Reagan Revolution, which was to a large extent planned and executed by a relatively small and very skillful group of conservative foundations.
But he shrinks away from the obvious conclusion:
But we cannot exclude the possibility that if the institutions of philanthropy in the US were suddenly wiped out or decisively weakened, American society might actually be worse off than it is with them.
Nevertheless, it's good to see the issue put on the table. It seems that there has been a general forgetting that the origins of modern US philanthropy began with the work of one of the founders of public relations, Ivy Lee, through his work with John D. Rockefeller.
Whether it is deliberate or just an unintended consequence, there is little question that the whole foundation grant system has had more of a fragmenting than a unifying effect on social reform movements. As we recently discussed in connection with the Haas Jr. Foundation, foundations spread their largess so thin (especially when it comes to social reform) it is not surprising that they have little to show for their efforts. And when they attempt to promote grassroots change with large injections of cash, the results tend to be disastrous.
So ... maybe philanthropy is part of the problem, not the solution.