Getting Beyond Philanthropic Colonialism

Tuesday, November 5, 2013
by Charles H. Hamilton
Peter Buffett deserves lots of credit for his “Charitable-Industrial Complex” piece inviting us to participate in what he and his wife Jennifer are learning about philanthropy. Their NoVo Foundation is large and has very ambitious goals for empowering adolescent girls and ending violence against girls and women. The responses to his New York Times op-ed have been numerous. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ran a piece by Phil Buchanan and excerpts from other experts. The thread of comments following Wayan Vota’s “Open Letter to Peter Buffett” is fascinating, albeit maddening, as such short burst of comments usually are. Mr. Buffett also has a Huffington Post blog entry with some comments going beyond the Times piece.
His frustrations at philanthropy are very legitimate and heart-felt. But I found some of his assumptions and suggestions more troubling.
He rightly identifies the destructive and often unintended consequences of what he calls “Philanthropic Colonialism”: when “a donor [and, I would add, many a foundation] had the urge to ‘save the day’ in some fashion. People…who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.” Most commentators glossed over this very important point. Philanthropic Colonialism is a variation on the hubris that is too frequently a hallmark of philanthropic practice. I have been amazed how often foundation program officers and executive directors thought “I know better” about solutions to school reform, poverty alleviation, merging nonprofits, etc. — much to the horror of nonprofits on the ground. Indeed, some writings from the Strategic Philanthropy-Complex actually encourage, unintentionally, this unfortunate attitude among philanthropists. (See my “A Hedgehog Moment: The Roles and Pitfalls of Strategic Philanthropy for Family Foundations and Donors,” from The Foundation Review.)
Mr. Buffett goes on to identify some more damaging factors behind Philanthropic Colonialism. Invited inside the corridors of power, he is dismayed that as the elite searches for solutions, others at the same table have created the problems. True. But the impression he leaves is that the cause is capitalism and markets. This is too facile and perhaps politically correct. Of course both market and government failures are at work. However, we need to be more precise about what we mean if we are to address causes clearly.
I would suggest, for instance, using the term “corporatism,” as Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps does in his new book Mass Flourishing, for the unholy alliance of entrenched interests in government, corporations, unions and, yes, philanthropy that happens in the corridors of power. These are institutional arrangements that contribute greatly to the mess we are in and hamper solutions. The important point is that ongoing open and candid discussion from all points of view is necessary if we are to understand clearly the complexity of what is going on. Not to do so increases the probabilities of stasis, failure or worse.
As a result of his observations in the passageways of influence, Mr. Buffett has decided that much of philanthropy is simply “conscience laundering.” Well, no doubt there is some of that, especially among a narrow elite (some foundation boards and staff have the same motivations). But that is simply not what I have seen working with many wealthy donors, who tend to be passionate and committed to their causes. I think Mr. Buffett has hit a wrong note here.
Mr. Buffett also dismisses small philanthropic successes as he searches for big answers. He rejects helping people “to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?” Say that to the nearly 1 billion people in the developing world that have risen out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010. Much, much more has to be done, of course. As I see it, we can’t ignore the small steps that often make the difference between life and death, while they also open doors to hope and progress for those who need it most. Crucially, this is how we learn from and stay in touch with those we care about.
He rejects these small changes solely “to support conditions for systemic change,” what he calls “new code.” This reminds me of the biting irony in Jacques Barzun’s description of philanthropy in The House of Intellect as “manipulation for the general good.” I know that Mr. Buffett wants to get beyond the manipulation, power and simplicity. But I think he is too quick to ignore the common unintended consequences of straying too far into the stratosphere: from “just” wasting great amounts of money, to making the lives and prospects of many people much worse. Just consider Nina Munk’s new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, which is a sad, cautionary tale of poignant passion, galloping presumption and failed promises. We need to know what makes for success or failure. Small changes and attention to what people really want can ground otherwise abstract initiatives in reality.
By the end of the op-ed piece, Mr. Buffett’s personal report card reveals a genuine desire to do philanthropy better. He sees clearly the weaknesses of philanthropy. But there is a twinge of elitism there. And more troubling, it seems a call for “new code” can easily lead one right back to Philanthropic Colonialism simply dressed up in “new clothes.”
Where do we go from here?  I would offer four pivotal topics to keep the conversation going.
  1. Stay grounded. In one of his contributions to the Wayan Vota thread, Mr. Buffett claims that “we should focus on creating the conditions for change as opposed to focusing on exactly what change should look like.” That is misleading and at least half-wrong. Isn’t the “change one will likely get” embedded in the conditions for change we create? Otherwise, it is too easy to impose the abstract rationalism of Philanthropic Colonialism and to ignore what other people want and need. I remember years ago supporting research that surveyed what the residents of the poorer neighborhoods of Washington, DC really wanted. They were initially suspicious of being lab rats. Once they saw the surveyors were listening, it turned out that residents wanted what we all do: clean streets, safety, etc. This flew in the face of the grand theories of a burgeoning anti-poverty industry.
  2. Beware of group-think. Mr. Buffett bewails the gatherings, workshops and affinity groups generated by philanthropy. At the same time, the NoVo Foundation website rightly makes much of the importance of concentrating expertise and learning through collaborations and gatherings of stakeholders. Too often, though, doesn’t it seem that “stakeholders” can easily become a term for self-selecting and self-interest? Haven’t we all seen the entrenchment of a group-think culture that limits our vision? Because NoVo doesn’t accept outside proposals and, as Pablo Eisenberg recently pointed out, is governed by a board of only three, I fear it could easily become more insular over time. The challenge is to find the right group of insiders, outsiders and critics willing to engage in an ongoing, open and honest dialogue that really honors expertise, diversity of viewpoint, local knowledge and criticism. (We don’t want to follow cynics and naysayers, but I increasingly find their counsel invaluable.)
  3. Commit to the long-term. Throughout the NoVo site, and some of Mr. Buffett’s other writing, there is a clear appreciation of the long-term nature of the work to be done, in opposition to the near fetish in modern foundations and among many donors for short-term results and an annual schedule. This doesn’t show up in the Times piece, but is critical to real success.
  4. Focus on results. The NoVo website and those of the big, important initiatives it supports do have some of the hallmarks of slick marketing sites. It is not uncommon to see foundations conflate promotion of programs with effectiveness. Philanthropy also has a long history of wanting to bypass paying for good, independent evaluations (these don’t have to be super expensive). We aren’t so good, either, at learning from or communicating about our successes or mistakes. One hopes that these candid evaluations are in the works for NoVo initiatives, and that these impressive-looking sites will also become critical learning vehicles.
Philanthropy is nothing if it isn’t a continuing discovery process. Doing that well is one of the few checks on Philanthropic Colonialism and some of the other challenges expressed above.
Charles Hamilton was Executive Director of The Clark Foundation for many years and, earlier, the J. M. Kaplan Fund. He served as Philanthropy New York’s Senior Fellow in 2009 and on the Board of the Council on Foundations for six years. He recently retired as Director of Philanthropic Advisory Services for Bessemer Trust. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and on the Board of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. He writes on philanthropy and civil society.
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