Philanthropy's Highest Potential is to Disappear

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Philanthropy may be defined ideally as “love of humanity,” but philanthropy as we know it is a perfect microcosm of our modern American capitalist economy:

  1. There is fierce competition for scarce resources (“This rejection of your proposal is not a reflection of the worthiness of your project.”).
  2. A person’s worth is determined by their wealth (“We need a new board member. Do you know any rich people? Specifically, ethnic rich people?”).
  3. We think we can buy social good (“To receive your grant, please sign and return this grant contract.”). Plus, we think we can get it on sale (“Administrative and fundraising expenses are not to exceed 5% of total budget”). And even off the rack (“Let’s replicate the model nationally”). Maybe throw in a money-back guarantee (“We only support evidence-based practices.”).

Philanthropy as we know it has done a great job in becoming an indipensible part of our economic system by helping people feel comfortable with and even good about grossly inequitable distributions of wealth and power. Without scarcity in one corner and extreme wealth in the other, who needs philanthropy?

What if many of the social problems we face today, which philanthropy as we know it aims to mitigate or solve, have roots in the way our economy treats people? Maybe, equality between people can only be achieved once there is also some level of economic equity between us. What if peace between people and nations requires a more equitable global distribution of wealth?

What if we have to think outside of the current economic system that gave birth to philanthropy as we know it in order for philanthropy to achieve its highest potential?

So let’s try this: take a deep breath and relax. What could philanthropy look like in a world where everybody already has enough?

When I ponder this question, I see a world with an economic system that supports people’s inclinations to:

  • Give generously.
  • Receive graciously.
  • Reciprocate frequently.

When I imagine an economy in a world where we all have enough, we give generously. I see people who give freely without strings attached. There is no fear of it going to waste, no worry that a precious resource might be squandered. We can do this because we trust that what is given will be returned in some form, which frees us to be generous because we never give away — we only give, and what we give grows.

When I imagine an economy in a world where we all have enough, we receive graciously. I see people who know how to receive. They recognize the gift that has been given, and there is no shame attached to receiving because we know that we all receive in one form or another. The recognition of need is simply an act of humility, not a sign of weakness. Seen this way, we can be gracious — especially because we know that all of us have something important to give, and we are always asked to do that.

When I imagine an economy in a world where we all have enough, we reciprocate frequently. I see a whole network of people giving and receiving just what is needed and called for at any particular time. Lynne Twist calls this state “sufficiency.” Just enough, no more, no less. It’s a principle around which we can construct relationships that allow us to care for each other. After all, economics is really about how we decide to structure relationships between people. We could design a system that acknowledges a radical truth — that we are equal and interdependent — and in so doing, obliterate philanthropy.

Give generously.
Receive graciously.
Reciprocate frequently.

An economy built on these principles doesn’t need philanthropy as we know it. It would already express our love of humanity.

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