Thursday, December 17, 2015
Opinion from Ford Foundation's Walker: Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough
During this season of giving, I will join millions of Americans in volunteering to feed the homeless, contributing to clothing drives and donating to poverty-fighting charities. Yet I worry that through these acts of kindness, I absolve myself of asking deeper questions about injustice and inequality. We Americans are a remarkably bighearted people, but I believe the purpose of our philanthropy must not only be generosity, but justice.
The origins of formal philanthropy date from at least 1889, when the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie composed his “Gospel of Wealth.” He drafted this intellectual charter at the peak of the Gilded Age, when inequality had reached extreme levels. Carnegie argued, as many still do, that inequality on this scale is an unavoidable condition of the free-market system — and that it was even desirable, if the promise of wealth incentivized hard work. Philanthropy, he believed, would ease the pressure of rising social anxiety that followed from inequality — ameliorating the afflictions of the market without altering the market system itself.
During the 20th century, an entire field of institutional philanthropy emerged and flourished in the pattern of Carnegie’s mold. Iconic American families — Gates, Knight, MacArthur, Mellon, Rockefeller — endowed and expanded foundations that built schools and libraries, developed new vaccines, revolutionized agriculture and advanced human freedom. My own organization, the Ford Foundation, has given billions to support everything from public television in the United States to microlending in Bangladesh.
Our work has been indisputably for the good: Millions of people around the world have access to new tools and resources with which to improve their lives. . .