Recent (and not-so-recent) critiques of philanthropy have affected the sector before and during COVID-19. Yet, crises often have ways to expand generosity amongst many people.
So, how can practitioners and funders recognize these critiques, while also moving the sector forward during times of crisis, and then in times of normalcy?
“Critiques of the concentration of wealth and power, and how people use their philanthropy to alter the public space, have been around for an extended period of time,” Pasic explained.
“For fundraisers and practitioners, it’s important for them to understand and read this critique, if for no other reason that it deepens our understanding of philanthropy, as well as our sense of the various dimensions that are involved in generosity, not all of which are necessarily positive.
“We typically think of generosity being one of the best things about human activity. Most faith traditions also reinforce that when people are generous and give, it’s one of the highest expressions of what it means to be human. Yet when we organize to be generous and when it gets channeled through various institutions, all kinds of unintended consequences, both positive and negative, can happen.”
Positive philanthropic actions
Badertscher noted that in the face of crises, these consequences can often bring about positive action.
She shared the story of Anna Holshauer, an individual who lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After the earthquake occurred and fires raged through the city, Holshauer collected materials to make a tent and built a soup kitchen. At its peak, the soup kitchen served 300 people a day over a 90-day period. The kitchen was called “Mizpah Café,” which means “an emotional bond among those who are physically separated,” or “sanctuary and peace.”
In addition, an account of the earthquake form Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said that afterwards, people shared “human warmth and kindness.”
Badertscher explained that during crises, individuals, families, and groups conduct random acts of kindness in order to help the people around them.
Tips for funders and donors
However, how can formal organizations channel that “warmth and kindness” to drive social change?
Pasic noted that there are ways for formal nonprofits and foundations to change practices to encourage more trust and accountability in the sector.
One way involves including grant recipients in making decisions about how philanthropy will be deployed.
“This helps recover the importance of a community-based approach to giving. Instead of seeing the grant makers in this position of power or superiority and grant receivers simply as subservient kind of receivers, try to be conscious about the power imbalance and bring in some of the people who receive the funds to help make the decisions about how the communal funds will be distributed,” he said.
Pasic also explained that recent years have seen a growth of individuals viewing giving as an investment, which can lead to the belief that those individuals continue to oversee those funds.
“There is an assumption that the people with the investments would continue to maintain control over the outcomes.”
On the other hand, he added that perhaps a simpler or more genuine understanding of giving is just departing with your funds and allowing the control to go to those who receive the funds.
“It’s not been uncommon to disparage this check writing philanthropy. But once someone writes the check, that was really the end of your control over it. You’ve made your decision and now the control goes to the people who do the good work,” Pasic said.
“In other words, you’re giving something away rather than using the recipients to control social outcomes.”
Advice for nonprofits
Badertscher also alluded to other takeaways for organizations to make a difference.
- Be resourceful.
“As nonprofit practitioners, find ways to be resourceful and share your good work during times of tragedy.”
- Remember that people are philanthropic.
“Philanthropy is part of the human condition. People will respond philanthropically when provided an opportunity to do so.
- Show direct impact.
“Illustrate your connection to impact. Show your stakeholders how you are creating impact during this time.”
Philanthropy can have positive and negative consequences. How are you, or your organization, contributing to the positive and driving social change?