In his recent article in The New York Times, “Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough,” Darren Walker, current president of the Ford Foundation, argues that “giving back” is necessary, but not sufficient. Walker explains that while feeding the hungry is among our society’s most fundamental obligations, we should also question why our neighbors are without nutritious food to eat. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” In short, giving back cannot substitute addressing the root causes of inequality in our country.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, mostly because it’s the season of giving and I spend the majority of my days thinking about how to measure social impact. Not to mention, my roommate from South Africa at ISH came home with me to New Jersey for Christmas and the two of us singlehandedly started an epic Christmas dinner debate about racism and inequality in the US. Given that the majority of my family members are conservative and outspoken, the conversation was eye opening to say the least. Ever since then, this article and our conversation has been on my mind.
When I first started my job, I read a lot about the history of philanthropy in the United States. I was surprised to learn that formal philanthropy dates back to 1889, when Andrew Carnegie drafted a charter at the peak of the Gilded Age, at a time when inequality in the US had hit extreme levels. Carnegie and many others argue that inequality on a grand scale is an unavoidable condition of the free-market system. (I have many thoughts on this. Likely a future blog post!)
I agree with Walker’s point that addressing the systematic issues that perpetuate human suffering is crucial for global development. However, I also believe that too often we neglect to question our own circumstances and the role that we play in the system. As Walker explains in the article, we should seek to bring about lasting, systematic change, even if that change may adversely affect us. I think that philanthropy and even the concept of “helping” can be dangerous, insofar as it removes the responsibility to question why the system benefits some and not others. As Walker explains, as a nation, we need more investment in education, but not without questioning educational disparities based on race, class, and geography.
Walker argues that philanthropy can no longer grapple with what is happening in the world, but also how and why. The system and practice of philanthropy in the US needs to be restructured. I agree wholeheartedly with this point and agree that we must prioritize empowering all people to be part of this process. As Walker explains, we should ensure that the voices of those affected most by injustice—women, racial minorities, the poor, religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ individuals—help decide where and what philanthropy goes towards, not simply receiving whatever philanthropy decides to give them.
However, I believe that allowing those who are affected by injustice to weigh in on how and what philanthropy is being used for is—again, simply not enough. We must first shift our mindsets to redefine those to whom we “give” and “help.” And even the concepts of “giving” and “helping” themselves.
The concepts of “helping” and “giving” are inherently based on inequality. They do not represent a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. When you give, you may inadvertently take more away than you could ever provide. Giving and helping are all about ego. Not to mention, helping incurs debt. When you help someone, they owe you. Serving on the other hand is mutual. When you help, you feel satisfied. When you serve, you feel grateful.
Service is a relationship between equals. We all draw from our experiences and we all have something to contribute. Service serves us and others. Service rests on the basic premise that the wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others. Fundamentally, service requires respect for all people and the acknowledgement that we are all one degree away from tragedy. When we choose serving over giving, we are able to start reimagining philanthropy and can begin to question and address the root causes of inequality in our country. Every person is equal in dignity, and when given equal access to rights, resources and opportunities, there can be significant impact.
Giving back is not enough. Instead, let’s invest in each other. Only then can we unleash our power to lead our own change and work on behalf of the dignity for all.
As always, thank you for reading! I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year!