Revisiting a holiday fable in the era of modern scooges – Inside Philanthropy
It is said that the spirit of giving, whatever it is, comes to life at this time of year. And in this tradition, I would like to put a little cap on 2021 by recalling one of the oldest fables of philanthropy: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
I know, hardly new territory. But while some 19th century business models reassert themselves in this new golden age, I don’t think it is too much to draw parallels between Victorian England and our own time.
Anyone who lives in a big city, especially here on the West Coast, has probably noticed the Dickensian character some of our streets have taken on in recent times, with the desperate and have-not living side by side with the privileged and the powerful. The same resource pit also exists elsewhere; it’s just less visible. I also risk straying too far into the English department by pointing out that death, which features so prominently in the Dickensian classic, now occupies the public mind in ways that were not possible a few years ago. two years.
In the face of these concerns in his day, Dickens’ response in “A Christmas Carol” was private and individual charity. Redeemed as a philanthropist after a life of greed, Ebenezer Scrooge and his wealth went from a burden to a blessing, bringing relief to those around him affected by structural poverty.
What Scrooge did not do, however, was presented to parliament on an anti-poverty platform, or argued for increased taxes on financial services professionals like himself, to pay for a better alternative to these prisons and work houses.
Just kidding, but the point is that proto-philanthropy stories like “A Christmas Carol” helped set standards around charitable giving in the West that remain powerful today. That is, things like centering the philanthropist rather than the beneficiaries, or a refusal to criticize capital accumulation systemically, or to invoke the public sector as part of the solution.
These are all issues that we juggle on a daily basis at IP, as we cover a space where individual wealth holders wield ever-increasing power, and often in ways that are not very transparent. It is difficult. On the one hand, there is a temptation to go all the way into Anand Giridharadas and paint all the super-rich as unredeemed Scrooges. It is also true that in a way that was not as common in the 19th century, some of today’s mega-donors are trying to work at the structural level, with success or not. But then again, we cannot forget that greed is still the rule among all billionaires. And that many philanthropists‘ preferred treatments for social issues fail to challenge the inequitable systems that made their wealth possible in the first place.
While we may aspire to a more democratic nonprofit sector, the power to make important funding decisions remains in the hands of a very small subset of the public. Like the ghosts that haunted Scrooge, we can persuade, cajole, and criticize. But at the end of the day, what we’re covering here is private wealth. If philanthropy is to change, private decision-makers will have to choose the change, and without the help of the supernatural. Government regulation could also come into play, but these days that seems about as unlikely.
Still, MacKenzie Scott made a good point in her recent article on “shrinking” the term philanthropy to only refer to big gifts from people like her. As the holidays begin, it is worth reverting to the idea that “the love of humanity” does not just mean big gifts of money, or even small gifts of money, but something like “The kinship with the people who offered a couch when someone said they needed a couch,” as Scott put it.
We are fortunate that since the onset of the pandemic more attention has been paid to these more accessible forms of humanity’s love, both by philanthropic researchers and by those working in the field, often in care roles, which can choose to identify and take responsibility. by a term once reserved for white and male captains of industry.
Nonetheless, I think there is still a role for this narrower version of the word, and perhaps more than ever, a need to delineate and take a close look at what we might call “great philanthropy” – this what Scott calls “financially rich people who believed they knew best how to solve other people’s problems.”
Our society, which revere the “science” of economics and the cult of rational self-interest, still does much to support this belief, hoisting our billionaire philanthropists onto a pedestal. But that could change as smart criticism and healthy skepticism become a societal norm, a shift we’ve watched with great interest in recent years. One of my hopes for the coming year is that even if we alone in the philanthropic media cannot change old beliefs about wealth, we will announce, like the ghost of Jacob Marley, the coming of those who can.