Monday, March 17, 2008
OnPhilanthropy.com contains a very provocative essay entitled "For What? Is Philanthropy Abandoning the Needy?" The very well written essay, authored by Dr. Susan Raymond, provides an opportunity to step back and consider the forest as we tend to the individual trees. Its well worth reading. Here is a brief excerpt:
For what? The question, my friends, is being asked. Unfortunately, it is not being asked by us. I say unfortunately because there is no such thing as a good surprise. It is always better to anticipate criticism, understand its roots, and prepare for its consequences, than to have the momentum of questions build from the outside, momentum that grows from a murmur to a sotto voce aside to a comment to a news article to an op ed piece to a Congressional hearing. It is always better to ask first, rather than answer last. Rather than by us, the question “For What?” is being asked by observers and pundits who see the ever upward tracking line of philanthropy, the headlines about billion dollar campaigns, the 200% increase in the number of nonprofits and ask, for what? For what, when the same problems seem to plague the social commons? For what, when the homeless still are without shelter? For what, when the chasm between the ultra-wealthy and the extremely poor continues to widen? For what, when the bottom billion in the world face no more hope today than they did yesterday? For what, when the money flows but results on the societal commons do not? For what, when the dollars to help flow so generously, but nothing ever seems to get fixed?
The question is being asked in a fundamental form. Is philanthropy, and the nonprofit sector it supports, abandoning the needy? Do not smile sadly and shake your head about the ignorance of some pundits. Do not believe that question reflects the naiveté of those who simply do not know what we do. This is not the source of the questioning. Those asking the questions are not the hairdressers of Hopkinsville or the good old boys of the Koffee Klatch Kafe. The questions are not being asked out of ignorance. They are being asked out of observation.
No less than Robert Reich has asked whether institutions with $40 billion endowments and consistently black balance sheets are actually charities. No less than Google has supported research that implies that much of philanthropy is not about the societal commons at all, but rather about feeding the egos of the already empowered. No less than the United States Congress has cast a skeptical eye at the endowment coffers of institutions philanthropies and nonprofits -- that already sit on billions of dollars that produce earnings of 10% to 15%, but pay out funds for programs that actually help anyone at only 4%. No less than the editorial staff of the New York Times has upbraided the sector for its turning from the poor.