Is Philanthropy losing its ‘meaning’?

There are various conceptions of philanthropy in American society. While some view philanthropy as a religious obligation, giving their time, treasure and talent to the Church or religious institution, others view it as a ‘social relation’, one that binds people to one another says Paul Schervish, in his paper  Philanthropy as a Social Relation. Increasingly, this aspect of philanthropy is giving way to giving to organizations, anonymous funds and institutions that ‘manage’ our money for the ‘best possible’ social outcome. Is this leading to a de-personalization of charity and are the ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ of giving being lost? Are we witnessing more ‘consumption philanthropy’ and other forms of philanthropy, which is antithetical to how most religious and cultural traditions conceptualize them? Is this problematic or is it a natural part of the evolution of the field itself?


This is particularly important for my study, as I am looking at the role that faith-based organizations play, as mediators of the discourses of giving, in a context, not of their own making. As Schervish further argues, the key relation in philanthropy that needs to be understood is one that of the donor and recipient. This can lead to a better match between resources and needs of donors, he says. But how does one negotiate this relationship when an organization mediates as a go-in-between the donor and recipient? This and related concerns are some of the newer challenges that have cropped up with the growth of organized ‘philanthropy’.

Still others conceptualize philanthropy as not necessarily positive, but rather as a remnant of colonial mindset, that seeks to ‘dominate’ the weak and oppressed, in the guise of helping them ( Wagner, 2001). In this conceptualization, philanthropy is oppressive and takes on a hegemonic role, something not very pleasant for the donor or recipient. These competing conceptions of philanthropy are interesting in and of themselves and lend themselves to analysis. But my interest in them derives from how they are being articulated in various forms in contemporary society.

Focus on values or metrics?

While much of scholarly work and research is focused on donors and how to attract them, show them that their money is bearing fruit. But what about the recipients? How do we ensure that their dignity is protected and they are also recognized for proper use of the money, given to them. The recipients could be individuals, organizations or foundations.

Peter Frumkin, Professor at University of Pennsylvania on the other hand argues that it is possible to merge the scientific with the aesthetic or related dimensions of giving. He draws a distinction between the ‘art’ of giving and the ‘science’ of it. In his book Strategic Giving, Frumkin concludes with how the art of philanthropy allows donors to express their private values and convictions while the science of philanthropy pushes the field toward greater levels of instrumental effectiveness. As he says in his book : “One of the main arguments of this book is that often philanthropy works best and strategy is most compelling when the donor brings its value set and assumptions to bear on the process of setting forth a philanthropic direction. Without this critical differentiating ingredient, giving can never reach its true potential. When individuals draw upon their life experience and their reservoir of commitment and caring, however philanthropy can take on problems that government and community stakeholders may not yet recognize or prioritize.” While this does mean that philanthropy can become very ‘personalized’ and extremely undemocratic, it also means that once there is a personal stake in an issue, the donor will invest more of his/her time into it. This could also lead to a related criticism of philanthropy that it makes giving very undemocratic and unequal.

Donor advised funds, Giving Circles, Philanthrocapitalism – these are some of the ‘newer’ versions of how philanthropy is being conceptualized and marketed. For the uninitiated, these are various ways that money is pooled and then used for ‘common good’. While financially, these may be smart and ‘efficient’ ways to conduct philanthropy, there is also a fear that the core of philanthropy is being lost here. I would argue that the ‘values’ part of philanthropy is being increasingly side-stepped and this is not a good trend. While making this normative claim, I realize that there is a greater need for accountability that has become the norm in this field of study and practice.

This tension between ‘values’ of philanthropy and the ‘science’ of doing it right is yet to be resolved. While there is the danger of ‘death by data’ in this field, as increasingly, people are asking for more ‘evaluations’ and ‘results’ of projects and not asking whether the mission objectives are being met, even if people don’t ‘deliver’ results in the short-term. Peter Frumkin argues that this is an important aspect and one that we should not lose sight of. In Strategic Giving, he advocates giving from a values perspective, aligning the donors’ values with the projects or organization that one wants to support, so there is greater coherence in giving. His advice is to look at the following five factors, before planning one’s giving strategy:

1. They must declare the value to be produced through their giving

2. Donors need to define the type and scope of program that will be supported

3. Donors have to select a vehicle or structure through which they will conduct their giving

4. Donors must find a giving style and profile level that is satisfying and productive

5. They need to settle on a time frame that will guide their giving

As Frumkin clarifies: “These five constitute the “philanthropic prism,” and are aimed at moving the field of philanthropy towards a more strategic approach. By thinking through how best to present donors with giving opportunities, that connect to the core of their strategic concerns, nonprofits can improve the quality and sophistication of their grant making appeals.” While insightful and well-articulated, the question is, how many High net worth donors or even small donors think of these factors? Will they stop their ego from getting in their way, as they plan their donations? What about external pressures to give that may contradict their values? All of these questions come up as one examines this advise.

Finally, as Schervish and Ostrander point out, the claims that philanthropy makes towards people are normative and not coercive, or transactional. A politician may stand for election and promise certain changes or reforms, in exchange for your vote and this makes it a purely transactional exercise, while a nonprofit leader cannot do the same, they add. This makes the sector unique in a sense of being both bound by certain norms and also free from the sort of ‘effective’ results that it is supposed to generate. The results that philanthropy generates are ‘affective’ instead of ‘effective’ they add. This may be hard claim to sustain, in a tough economy and constricted budgets. While the ‘values’ and ‘science’ could be a false dichotomy, and one that we can overcome, with some thoughtful planning and care, it is imperative that neither dimension is ignored. Being conscious of both aspects of philanthropy may well be critical for keeping the sector relevant and vibrant.

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time


He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.


What is ‘Big data’ and does it tell us anything?


Consider this: almost every important story these days is accompanied by a chart, an info graphic or a detailed econometric analysis that even the creators of the graphic don’t fully understand. It is filled with ‘Big data’, the buzz word these days. So, what is ‘Big data’ and why are we so obsessed with it? As a friend pointed out recently, there isn’t anything ‘Big’ about Big data, it just happens to be data, plain and simple. The ‘Big’ is a buzz word, a spectacle created to make it look attractive and sexy, given our obsession with things

big and flashy.Image

If you are remotely engaged in the study of Social Sciences, Nonprofit management or related fields, chances are you are already exposed to the myth that “data can solve all our problems”. Data, Big data, ‘Scientific data’ are all bandied about, as if, just by having access to them, we can magically solve all our problems. Whether it is fixing our national education system(s), healthcare reform or any other pressing social policy issue, somehow data is presented as the Holy Grail. Even in public policy schools, this is taught and one can see the dominance of the ‘positivist’ social sciences, those that rely heavily on quantitative analysis. But the question remains: How much of this is actually true? How can just evaluation metrics and info graphics help us understand complex human realities? Surely, they are helpful and have their place. But this overarching emphasis that we place on numeric, quantifiable data seems misplaced.

Consider education reform. A recent Op-Ed in NY Times points to this debate using the very dichotomy I have brought up for discussion – the one between quantitative, data driven analysis and the more ‘touchy-feely’ qualitative analysis. Stanley Fish, the author says of Derek Bok, Harvard University President and his views on two ways of looking at education reform: “The first is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.” Bok goes on to point that indeed it is hard to measure the ‘right’ metrics of success in the long term, given this dichotomous framing. This is not just a problem of measurement, but the problem of what to measure, he argues. This is eerily similar to how Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of something, but not its value. Our education system seems to have been reduced to this state of affairs, too. A cynical, quantified, ossified mechanism where at every step, we are asking “What is the output we expect?” either as individuals or a society. The value of education just doesn’t come up in discussions any more.  

All of this is not to suggest that number crunching is pointless. Quite the opposite, I think numerical analysis, large quantitative studies have their place and can be extremely useful and insightful when large populations are to be studied, and there are limited resources. The limitation that these surveys, data points do not go into in-depth information or provide insights that are very deep must be acknowledged at the same time. Going back to the example of education reform, higher education is aggressively moving towards more quantitative analysis and there are several indicators of this. Consider MOOCS for instance. These are growing by the day and their rationale seems to be based around providing access to information, while leaving out the question of ‘learning outcomes’ for future. No one seems to be worrying about these ‘soft’ issues for now. It is all about the number of courses taken or number of students in a course. Outreach has trumped quality of teaching and learning.

A brief detour to look at the history of these ‘paradigm wars,’ as these were known in the 1960s and 70s’, is helpful. Careers were made or destroyed depending on which ‘camp’ one belonged to. The dominance of ‘scientific’ and ‘data’ driven research and analysis came to a peak at that point and it was only with the emergence of alternative theorists, particularly the feminists, post colonialists that they challenged this paradigm of quantitative analysis. As Denzin and Lincoln (2011) say “Critical pedagogy, critical theorists, and feminist analyses fostered struggles to acquire power and cultural capital for the poor, non-whites, women and gays.” They further elaborate that all kinds of research brings with it certain ontological and epistemological commitments. “All research is interpretive: guided by a set of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied. Some beliefs may be taken for granted, invisible or only assumed, whereas others are highly problematic and controversial. Each paradigm makes particular demands on the researcher, including the questions that are asked and the interpretations that are brought to them.”

What this implies is that even the so called ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ data driven studies are riddled with biases such as what kinds of questions are asked, who is interviewed, what is the survey instrument used and above all – what is studied and who is doing the studying and the analysis. One of the most influential approaches that addresses these questions of knowledge, power and dominance is by Michel Foucault. His Discipline and Punish takes a genealogical look at the emergence of power, dominance and the rise of ‘expertise’. This ‘expertise’ was and still continues to be dominated by those who have access to ‘knowledge’. This specialization, either in the form of medical profession, the legal system or any other systems leads to others being treated as ‘subjects’. A similar logic is at play when we consider the use of public policy measures, governance mechanisms by the government to ‘guard’ and protect as well as oversee its citizens. The entire securitization discourse is a classic example of this phenomenon of ‘expertise’, where a handful of people are deciding the fate of millions or perhaps billions others, all in the name of ‘national security’.

While I am not advocating crystal ball gazing as a strategy, the extremes to which we, as a society are going to gather and interpret certain kinds of data, is hurting us, rather than informing us. Political analysis can be done by means that is not necessarily statistical or numeric. War games and game theory simulations with zero sum outcomes program us to think like robots and unfortunately, much of the current discourse seems to be tuned towards turning us into some form of automatons, with limited capacity for judgment.

             I believe our obsession with certain kinds of data has to do something with our need for control. There is also a great need for certainty and control, that data offers us. With statistics, surveys and some data, we can feel ‘secure’ that we are doing something to ‘fix’ the problem. Indeed many agencies, organization hide behind their ‘progress reports’ and quantitative analysis of how many houses they built, the number of sick cured or other such numbers. Monitoring and Evaluation systems are tell us that the indicators for poverty are actually showing progress. The GDP measures are ticking up, even though the ground realities may be different, with inequality growing as the GDP grows. It all looks good on paper and the annual reports will get a good round of applause. The complicating evidence in the form of human narratives, phenomenological studies and perspectives of the participants involved (often subjects, who end up being just a statistic) are ignored. This is what robust data analysis should bring, coupling both the quantitative and qualitative aspects – to inform us of the ‘truth’, even if there are several versions of it.

            Finally, it may be prudent to remember that data is not just numerical. Even rich qualitative descriptions, historical and archival data are also ‘data’ points and equally valid. Perhaps the solution to many of the problems of evaluation, judging and planning seems to be in balancing this ‘hard’ data with some of the ‘soft’ stuff. Bringing back the human element to our data collection, analysis and usage may be the way for us to get back in touch with our own humanity.




Is “God Bless America” problematic ?

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” – John F Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“ Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” – Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast meeting, February 6, 2014


Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:

The two speeches quoted above were made with a gap of  more than fifty years. Despite this, one can see the reference to God, America being a religious nation and the rhetorical use of faith in both these speeches. This rhetoric of religion goes back to the founding of the nation itself, one could argue. Why does an American President have to invoke God to appeal to his own people and the rest of the world? Despite constitutional separation of religion and state, why does this occur so often? What role does this “Civil Religion” play in America. I will examine these questions in this short article and look at the intersection of religious and political rhetoric in the American public sphere and explore whether this is problematic and why.

Civil religion can be defined as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes[i].” Since Rousseau coined the term and used it in his The Social Contract, the concept has become useful in describing this phenomenon of politics coopting religion. Robert Bellah, in his essay Civic Religion argues that “every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not,” by this he means not the self-worship of nation, but conscious subordination of the nation to ethical principles. He uses the example of John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech (quote above taken from this speech) to demonstrate that civic religion seems to be alive and well, in the American political space. He says that the mention of God three times in the beginning para of his speech itself is not just symbolic or empty, but points to a value system that most Americans share and to that extent, it is an acceptable form of speech.

Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all?” The answer, he points out, is that the separation of church and state does not deny the political realm a religious dimension, meaning that there is no prohibition in using religious rhetoric, as long as it is not used to suppress others religious rights or freedoms. Further, Bellah clarifies: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” He further argues that civil religion in America is tied to the history of the founding of the country itself, and manifested very strongly in instances when the very meaning of the nation has been questioned. Subsequently, through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in Bellah’s view represents the very best of the civil religious tradition- as his motives were drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the desire to hold the country together, and not from a particular religious dogma. This tradition seems to have continued till today, with a few aberrations in between.

Bellah is also quick to remind us that it is not all rosy with civil religion. “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight,” he adds.

As a country that has constitutionally separated religion and state, some critics point out,  civil religion blurs these boundaries. Former President George W Bush came under attack in the media and from scholars for the use of religious rhetoric and in particular, use of the word ‘Crusades,’ to describe the Iraq War. Commenting on the Bush years, this NY Times article further contends that “ Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840’s, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but ”manifest” in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: ”’These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.” Both these historical examples point to the ugly use of religion to justify actions that could not stand the test of high moral principles that they promised to uphold.

Moving to contemporary America, President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 6 are indicative of the importance of civil religion in the U.S. Civil religion has arguably made a significant contribution towards the discourse of religious freedoms, as Obama’s speech demonstrates. Obama uses his rhetoric of civil religion to build on his argument for greater religious freedoms both in the U.S. and abroad. He mentions the recent uptick in violence in the Central African Republic, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Burma as egregious instances when the states are not doing enough to protect those who are vulnerable. As he says: “ I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem — sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims.  I’ve felt it in houses of worship — whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok.” This device works, one can argue, to not only bring people together in a shared value system, but also to politically send out a message that all religious groups and faiths will be tolerated. So, in effect, civil religion in this instance can be seen as upholding the First Amendment provision of freedom of speech, which by implication means freedom of religious choice or to not believe. In a post 911 world, where religious intolerance in the U.S. is quite high, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, this rhetoric may be necessary.

Some of the benefits of civic religion are obvious: a) It gives us a value framework that is shared by all, irrespective of a particular faith tradition. b) It could also provide a safeguard for religious freedoms, and not letting the state trample on religious freedoms of people. President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast 2014 is a classic case. His entire speech can be seen as a call for religious freedoms both in the U.S. and around the world. While in a global context, this rhetoric may be seen as being hegemonic, it is not in contradiction with globally agreed norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. The only glitch, it seems is that this ‘values system’ leaves out the non-believers and those who are strongly opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. This is truly a sticky wicket.

Finally, it helps to remind ourselves what Bellah has said about civic religion and its place in American society. He advises that rather than being cynical and denouncing civic religion, which is in any case inevitable, given the highly religious nature of American society, it is better to seek within the civic religious space, those principles that may prevent national self-idolization. Bellah’s point that civil religion is becoming more activist, rather than theological is another interesting and perceptive insight. Looking back at recent history, we can see this in the case of civil rights movement, labor reforms debates, immigration reforms debate and several other initiatives, where religious leaders from various faith traditions have come together to create a discourse based on rights, often acting politically and similarly, politicians using religious rhetoric of ‘god given rights’ to argue for equality and ‘dignity for all.’ In this regard, civil religion can actually be helpful both as a social and political tool. There is no need to fear this public expression of a benign religious value system. What we need to fear is extremism- from both sides : the religious and the atheists.



[i] From Beiner, Ronald, Civil Religion, A dialogue in the history of political philosophy, Cambridge Uni Press, 2011


Can you Save Tigers by Eating More Chocolate? : A critique of consumer philanthropy

The dominant discourse of philanthropy these days (both in the developed and developing world) is one of ‘marketized philanthropy’ or ‘consumption philanthropy,’ that tries to convince us that we can really save tigers by consuming a particular brand of chocolate. While proponents of this view point to the decreasing role of governments, and are calling for increased ‘agency’ on part of both corporates and consumers, this debate is far from over. While certain corporates such as Apple, Starbucks, Dell have certainly done a lot to raise awareness about issues, brought in money and attention to issues that would have languished, if not for their advocacy; there are some perspectives that are often left out in this discourse. The key one being this ‘marketized philanthropy’ becoming hegemonic and shutting out all other discourses, which may perhaps offer us  better alternatives to solving these problems. An example is the Red campaign, which argues that one can prevent AIDS in Africa by buying a particular brand of computers or other consumer products. As consumers “you have the power to make a difference,” claims their website. But is this true, and how did this discourse come to dominate our consciousness? What are the alternatives? This brief article discusses these ideas through using the works of a few critical theorists.

Mark Rosenman points out several problems wit

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

h campaigns such as RED including that they are a cover for corporate avarice. In his article Patina of Philanthropy, he says: “According to the pro-business Conference Board, although the dollar value of corporate contributions to charity increased in the post-Katrina year (the last for which we have data) – including funds generated by cause-related marketing – the percentage of pretax revenue donated to worthy groups and causes actually declined.  Based on their income, corporations are becoming stingier.” He further contends that there is no transparency about how much of this money actually goes to charities. You cannot consume your way to social good he argues, reminding us that sometimes we need to sacrifice for the larger common good, rather than consume more.

Eikenberry and Nickel (2005) argue that this discourse of marketized philanthropy has actually done much more harm than good and there needs to be a close examination of the claims that the proponents of this discourse are making. Using the example of Angelina Jolie, who is an advocate for Africa, they ask: “Is Africa really suffering due to a lack of Angelina Jolies or Bonos (named one of three 2005 “Persons of the Year,” or is the problem more structural, to do with the society, its leaders, governance structures and more? They point out that this media celebration of philanthropists is both affirmative and exclusionary in that this discourse legitimizes the philanthropists and the money that they possess, without putting them through an examination of how they earned it and the system that perpetuates this inequality, in the first place. They contend that consumption philanthropy is not new and is as old as early 20th century, when Great Britain raised money for war relief funds for the South African war through “Patriotic ballads, hymns and songs that were written; provincial bazaars organized; and a large number of military concerts and processions staged.”

What is new, Nickel and Eikenberry argue is the pervasiveness as well as lack of alternatives for civic talk and action. This, they say can be remedied, through a more robust political engagement. They see hope in the social movements such as the civil rights movement, the land reform movement of Cesar Chavez among others.

Nickel and Eikenberry also add that the problem with this media narrative of marketized philanthropy is that it leaves out or excludes those about whom the stories are being told. Jolie seems to be saying, according to the authors : “Do something! But what can you do? Give money? Consumer philanthropic products like me!” They deploy Agger’s (1991) call for “disclosing narrative wherever we find it narrates anew; thus its political practice- in particular a politics of discourse”. By using this, Nickel and Eikenberry argue that capitalism is presented as an unauthored ideology, and it is consumed as one. It goes without questioning, without people stopping or pausing to check the validity of its claims, they say. This follows from Marx, who argued that money transforms the basis of human relations (specific expressions) into alienated relations, or relations based on a quality that is not in itself inherent. (Nickel, 2005, p.7).

While it is commendable that RED has raised millions in fighting AIDS in Africa, the question is whether this could have also been carried out through the channels that exist for this work to occur: the governments, people of Africa themselves. Are we robbing them of their agency and also more importantly, not letting Africans take part in a discourse that we manufacture, create and propagate. The RED website says: “(RED) was created to help provide a sustainable flow of money from the private sector to fight AIDS. We’ve raised over $240 million to date through the sale of (RED) products from iconic companies – like Apple and Starbucks – and from (RED) events. And 100% of that money goes to work on the ground.” Some questions arise from this: How much of this $240 million has gone to the patients, and more importantly, how much have corporates gained in lieu of this ‘charity’ that they did?

Finally, as Nickel and Eikenberry warn “ Consumption philanthropy is not a discourse about change, but a discourse about continued, even increased, consumption.” As Rosenman also reminds us, this focus of businesses solving social problems may actually benefit businesses more: in terms of publicity, new business and audiences than the actual people or charities that were intended to be the beneficiaries. This paradox is a deep one and one that might elicit a lot of cynicism, as it often does.

How might critics of Philanthrocapitalism respond to Bishop and Green and their theory of Philanthrocapitalism? From this quote above and some of the arguments presented earlier, it would seem that they would critique the entire model of capitalism and the ways that it conceptualizes the relationship of man and money. They may perhaps even critique the very basis of campaigns such as RED or the founding philosophy of Corporate Social Responsibility, not for the reason that Libertarians would do – i.e., argue that it is not the purpose of businesses to worry about social issues – but because this theory is fundamentally premised on the assumption that social problems can be solved by throwing more money at them. This, perhaps is the underlying assumption of critical theorists when they criticize business approaches to philanthropy. While you may not agree with it, it is certainly an important perspective that deserves our attention.