Heretical Propositions: Toward Democratic Philanthropy (Part One)

 This is the first installment of a series from a long essay I am writing about philanthropy or more specifically about the need for a major, if not radical shift, toward democratic philanthropy. The essay will be included in a book of exposition and criticism I am writing, currently entitled “Heretical Propositions.”

Money can mean a lot of things for those who have it. It can feed us, open doors, and keep us safe and warm. For those who have a lot of it — we call that “wealth” — it also provides influence and power. Those who make policy are those in power and most of those in positions of power are making enough money to do more than survive. In fact, once you have a certain amount of money and influence, one can use both to create more wealth and power.

It’s what we all want, isn’t it? Our friends south of the border still believe in the American Dream, which is invariably tied to financial success, albeit of various degrees. We don’t really have a Canadian Dream that all of us hold up like a shrine. But if we are paying attention, success in Canada is more times than not tied to personal financial gains.

quote1Most of us would admit that we would welcome wealth in our lives. Most of us are satisfied with making enough to buy a home, save for retirement, and escape to the Caribbean now and again.  Some of us aspire for more than that and undertake actions to achieve wealth and the comforts and security it provides us and those we love. None of us, however, would say that we would be satisfied with having less than we need to scrape by. Scraping by is not an aspiration. There are no best sellers about that, I imagine.

Wealth is not a bad thing in and of itself. It is true that wealth can create jobs (although what kind of jobs is the real question) and fuel innovation and learning. It can be used to support needed research into disease or to support efforts to help those who are disadvantaged. And we do see how billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates use their wealth for good. In my community, wealthy individuals and families contribute to causes they believe in. I admire people who share their wealth.

Just as wealth provides the wealthy positions of economic and social influence and power in the market place and in community, the same rings true when it comes to philanthropy. I believe there is ample evidence of good things happening because of philanthropy, but the question I wonder about – and perhaps this is a wicked question – is this: are the good things being done via philanthropy the right things and to what extent does our current approach to philanthropy harm people and communities or at least slow down their progress toward a better life?

I am inclined to think that many if not most philanthropists understand this question to be a reasonable one, but the question only has weight if something is being done to address it. We must have good intentions to help people and change what isn’t working for communities, but good intentions do not guarantee right thinking, understanding, and actions that produce desired results.

One of the fundamental principles of a democracy is that the people have both an obligation and a right to participate in community life. In democratic terms, by “people” I mean the “common people.” My view is that  “common people” means the large majority of people, not a minority who make most of the big decisions that everybody else is affected by.

As critical decisions become increasingly reserved for those with power and wealth, one has to wonder to what extent this becomes an experience of disenfranchisement from community life for most everyone else, as well as that unfortunate minority.

A while back I came across an article written by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams, in the Atlantic Monthly way back in 1899. Her article was entitled, “The Subtle Problems of Charity,” and it made me think, in particular the following:

“Many of the difficulties in philanthropy come from an unconscious division of the world into the philanthropists and those to be helped. It is all assumption of two classes, and against this class assumption our democratic training revolts as soon as we begin to act upon it.” [i]

What made me think was her proposition that the very existence of philanthropy in society says something about the failures of democracy in action. Common understanding of “democracy” tends to be focused on the rights of the people to determine their collective future through voting for their political leaders.  This viewpoint is not incorrect but it is more of a sub-point about what democracy is and is supposed to be, which I offer as “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.”[ii]

Other definitions of “democracy” are:

  • “the practice or spirit of social equality;
  • a social condition of classlessness and equality; [and]
  • the common people, especially as a political force.”

quote2Based on Addams’ perspective, one could argue that formalized charity is in effect a systemic, band-aid solution to dysfunctional democracy. I am not inclined to hold such an extreme view because I believe that people’s internal charitable impulses will always motivate them to organize with others who share similar charitable values and aspirations. Sometimes, perhaps often, such motivation to combine charitable aspirations into joint actions will result in the creation of formal structures, which we call non-profit and charitable organizations.

Even in a vibrant democracy that is working well for the majority of people, there is still the need for charitable expression, individually and through organizations and systems. That said, while we need philanthropy and, in particular, effective philanthropy, I want to understand why and when we need it, and how it fits into a democratic society, and if how we are doing it should be how we do it.

Is there a point when charity becomes the means by which we delegate responsibilities to a sector or to a handful of philanthropists in order to ameliorate democratic dysfunction? That’s another wicked question worth taking a look at.

We need to do some radical shifting in how we see and practice philanthropy.  The shift is about how individuals think, how communities think, what gets funded and how, and how philanthropy can fuel community action and development based on community-identified priorities.

In July of 2013, Peter Buffet wrote an Op Ed piece for the New York Times called “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” No doubt it annoyed more than a few, though in an interview Buffet stated he was surprised by the support he received). In his article he reminds us of Albert Einstein’s famous advice about not being able to solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Clearly many of our business, community, and philanthropic leaders are talking about the need for big change, but I am not sure to what extent we are seeing profound and large-scale reform, if not transformation, of how philanthropy is practiced.

Because philanthropy has become increasingly tied to the business mindset that created wealth for those we call philanthropists, we have expectations that limit doing good by subjecting charitable actions to the proverbial ROI requirements we invoke when assessing businesses.  This tendency to lift what works in the private sector and apply it to the non-profit or community sector is at best facile and misguided.  As I reflect on Buffet’s words, are we really serious when we ask what the ROI is for “ending human suffering?”

Buffet’s criticism is strong and perhaps a tad irreverent as well.

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”[i]

Democratic philanthropy is not a new term just like transformation isn’t, but like many words and phrases that we nod our heads to, the proof is in the pudding. The socio-economic problems in Canada and beyond are creating a disproportionate number of Haves and Have-Nots.

When 86 Canadians have more assets than 11 million of the poorest Canadians or more assets that everyone and every institution and business in the Province of New Brunswick, we have to wonder about what that really means, don’t we?  Isn’t there a tipping point we need to be concerned about?

When a few people end up with most the money, won’t this eventually create more problems than we have today, perhaps even lead to civil unrest?

Wendell Berry, novelist and poet, wrote that “the freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.” Strong words and perhaps subject to some misunderstanding about his intent, which I believe is not about casting dispersion’s on affluence, but rather about the overpowering freedom that seems to accompany it.

The other day I spoke to a group of people from around the country, which included a few from Cuba. These were people of faith who were a part of a “social justice” camp. There were three of us speaking about poverty and what Edmonton is doing to address it. During my time, I mentioned the aforementioned statistic about the extreme wealth of 86 Canadians. Here is the example, somewhat embellished from what I said at the gathering.

Imagine there are 1,000 people in the community and ten million dollars in the economy for everyone.Now imagine that one of the 1,000 has the same wealth as the remaining 999 people. In other words, one person has $5 million in wealth. What’s left for everyone else? Just over $5,000 each. We know that the $5,000 is not distributed evenly, but the point is made, isn’t it? There is only so much money in the community and if very few have most of it, how will that impact everyone else?



The next postings will expand further on wealth distribution and how institutions, social and economic policies and programs, as well as those who fund social good are controlled by those who control the economy. I will provide some shocking information about our Employment Insurance program (well, it shocked me) and offer an alternative perspective to the common notion that things would be much better if non-profits just operated more like businesses. 

[i] Retrieved from August 18, 2014.

[i] From The Subtle Problems of Charity,  retrieved from “,” June 6 2014

[ii]  See’s definitions of “democracy” here:

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