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Can Philanthropy Fix the Fraying Sense of a Common Good?

I have enormous amounts of privilege, some I earned and some I was given. I try to use that privilege whenever I can to speak truth to power and be a voice for people who don’t often get invited to the table. So, in this vein, I am moved to ask: What if philanthropy can’t fix the problem of a fraying sense of common good because it is one of the problem’s symptoms? Can a sneeze cure a cold?

Big philanthropy, both individual and institutional, arises from a highly extractive economic system that decays social cohesion rather than uplifts it. For every act of good, there are many acts to undermine it. At its core, large philanthropy is concentrated wealth redistributed by individual donors and institutions. It is undemocratic and opaque. It can be a way to burnish a soiled reputation or to exercise power to rival that of elected governments. Too often, it is untethered from a sense of a collective good

Black Man smiling on street

In the United States, we have this new-fangled notion called “trust-based philanthropy.” In this version of philanthropy, funders do not place constraints on how money is spent or how the impact is measured by the organizations and communities where the work is being done. It allows the stakeholders to make those decisions. How shocking!

At its core, large philanthropy is concentrated wealth redistributed by individual donors and institutions. It is undemocratic and opaque.

But much of philanthropy is guided by the priorities and values of individual philanthropists on any given day of the week. Most philanthropists remain aloof from the rest of us and seem to regard building trust relationships as irrelevant. My new favorite flippancy is to ask: Who’s got a ticket to space? To me, this symbolizes the disconnect between those practicing philanthropy and the people they seek to help. And that’s if we buy that their main motivation is to help society instead of self-dealing to protect their interests while continuing to amass enormous wealth. How can people so far removed from our community-at-large be the ones to fix our societal fracturing?

The most forward-thinking philanthropies and philanthropists are either spending down their assets because the idea of perpetuity is a luxury we can’t afford, or trying to democratize funding decision-making and cede power and privilege back to communities? They are asking how to move money out of Wall Street/big business and invest in communities instead? And beyond that, they are asking, “How do we influence others with money to do the same?”

Sadly, this group is a tiny portion of the whole.

Man working in workshopLately, whenever I think of the common good and philanthropy, I think about a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos on economic inequality in 2019. Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on the panel said:

It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right? Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes… We can invite Bono once more, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.

If we are going to seriously discuss how to create a sense of common good, we must all be on this earth. We must require philanthropists to come down from their ivory towers and ask people what they want, and if they had power, what they would do with it. Then help regular people make that a reality. For example, philanthropists should be working to improve self-governance for the entire populace rather than using their money to bet on a specific candidate or running for office themselves.

In short, what we should not do in this discussion is uphold a system that has been accelerating inequality and is now largely dedicated to its own growth, as well as the self-actualization of hyper-privileged people around the world.

Democracies and their supporting institutions are bleeding faith in themselves. But they can be revitalized. We can finish out the first half of this century by working to renew faith in each other.

What we should not do in this discussion is uphold a system that has been accelerating inequality and is now largely dedicated to its own growth, as well as the self-actualization of hyper-privileged people around the world.

The idea of the common good and the means to reframe and reform it needs common people not just philanthropists. As we move forward, we need to engage broadly and ask ourselves what an equitable world looks like. We must ask: Are the people sitting at the table here because they look like us, or have backgrounds and bank accounts like ours? If the answer is yes, we should rethink the “common” part of the good until those questions are no.

So, my agenda items are:

  • How do we democratize the money? Philanthropic dollars are currently in the hands of an elite few that have zero accountability to communities and stakeholders (or anyone else).
  • How do we democratize the process? Who is not here that needs to be here to make our work valid and accountable? And how do we get them here?
  • In the process of democratizing philanthropy, what mechanisms might help create a sense of a whole community instead of the current us vs. them paradigms we see across the world’s polities?

Banner about decency, equality and real social justiceI have not written here specifically about climate change, but it is the greatest existential crisis facing humanity. And it is an acute crisis that is particularly severe for resiliency-challenged people around the world. (I never thought I would be reading about people drowning in basement apartments in New York City as early as 2021, but here we are.)

Outside of war, there will be no greater threat in the 21st Century than climate change. And like war, climate change drives other crises: famine, water scarcity, species collapse, agricultural decline, migration of populations from the global south to the global north and from flooded coastal regions inland, political collapse, and, yes, wars. It is also a touchstone for many broader issues: the tradeoff of democracy with authoritarianism; the meaning of human rights and freedoms; and conflict resolution, to name just three.

As we discuss “the common good,” I would like to suggest that climate change be a primary lens that guides this process. It is an urgent, ticking clock that will force a reckoning with all the issues we will be debating.

Toni Johnson is CEO and founder of Mission OutLoud, which uses creative communications strategy and content to unleash clients’ voices and cut through the noise. She is on the finance committee for the Christopher Reynolds Foundation and is the former vice president of knowledge and influence for the Heron Foundation.

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