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.

1 thought on “Is Philanthropy losing its ‘meaning’?”

  1. Is philanthropy losing its meaning? No, although its meaning has always been contested, as for example in the argument is philanthropy the same as charity? Schervish, who is one of the most lucid and diligent scholars in the field has made the point in a number of his papers that philanthropic activity differs from market or political activities because it is governed by affective demand (think emotions) rather than effective demand (think quantifiable – dollars, votes etc,). We are witnessing a lot of debate currently in the field of philanthropy around metrics, scalability and other quantitative concepts. Yet, somehow, I am willing to bet, ‘heart’ over time will continue rule over ‘head’ and ‘affective’ will continue to dominate ‘effective’. I offer that thought as my pointer to the meaning of philanthropy.

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