Does philanthropy need to be re-framed?

When we use terms like philanthropy, usually it means giving away of the money by the wealthy to those who are well off. In recent times, this notion has come to be challenged. While the billionaires give money to causes both locally and internationally, it is often with a lot of fanfare and publicity.

On the other hand, there are also quite a lot of Hi-Networth individuals who give anonymously. This is a fact not well known. If you look up lists like the Million Dollar List, for instance, you will find many multi-million dollar gifts that are given away anonymously.

While the scholarship on philanthropy has predominantly focused on the giving practices of the rich, I ask : Is it time we started looking – with more seriousness – the giving practices of the not so rich. The middle class, the poor even. The Giving USA is one of the most comprehensive survey of its kind, that tracks nationally, the giving behavior of Americans, it does a great job of capturing what is going on in the country. At the same time, there needs to be greater attention to the philanthropy of the underdogs. Horizontal giving among the poor, to the poor is also a significant phenomenon.

Giving of charity from African Americans to other African Americans for instance, is an under-studied phenomenon. While there are some excellent biographical accounts of such individuals, a more careful analysis must be carried out. The same must be done across other minority and ethnic groups, where there is great community solidarity and attempts at helping each other. This fact has been documented by scholars such as Robert Wuthnow, among others.

Kambiz Ghaneabassiri writes in his book A History of Islam in America that Black slaves in GA practiced a form of giving of charity – giving of rice cakes – to their neighbors, as a form of ‘charity,’ which he traces to possible roots in Islamic practices of ‘Sadaka.’ This is an interesting finding and one that builds on our understanding of how inter-community relations are formed, through giving practices.

Similar practices exist among other communities as well, and these deserve greater attention. Especially, given that the election of Trump came about through the perceived and (to some extent) real disenfranchisement – primarily economic, though- of the working class Whites in the US, perhaps there needs to be greater focus on how poor communities, across all racial and ethnic communities practice giving and helping each other. Insights in these areas may actually help address some real problems that our country faces. This may well be one of the smaller solutions to building communal harmony and better understanding between the different people that make up this country.

Can celebrity philanthropy be harmful?

Remember the ads in which Angelina Jolie comes out and shames the world for ignoring the plight of refugees?  Or the Bono concert for helping AIDS victims? While each of them have done incredible good in the world, there is an argument out there; and it is a fairly strong one that goes like this : Since these celebrities are part of a governing regime of capitalism that causes this poverty in the first place; they are not doing anything substantive to address/ ameliorate poverty. They are just putting a bandage over a wound that is bleeding a patient to death.

Here is a scholarly paper by one of my PhD committee members, who helped me think about this aspect when I was a Phd candidate. I was aware of some of the negative influences of celebrity culture. This whole notion of attention seeking has never appealed to me. While attention seeking for a purpose is OK, most celebrities seek attention for  the sake of attention, that has never appealed to me.

Patricia Nickel says in her paper  “modern-day parables of philanthropic celebrities powerfully govern the oppositional impulse as they impart as sense of ‘benevolence’ in the form of an individualized disposition towards well-being and entitlement.” She further argues that this ‘governing regime’ which the celebrities sanitize with their appeals to charity is itself rotten.

In another paper, she, along with another scholar Angela Eikenberry argue that “However, this discourse (of celebrity philanthropy) falsely conveys a community of individuals with access to a venue for shaping social change. Rather than providing an open, discursive space for imagination, philanthropy as it has come to be defined, disguises its own discourse in its portrayal of the mediums of consumption, profit, and media celebration as the basis for benevolent human relations.” So, the issue that is problematic is one of relying on the market to manage relationships of benevolence. The buying of a laptop to eradicate AIDS (Red’s campaign) is problematic, according to Nickel and Eikenberry. This is also problematic given the ‘end of discourse’ that they suggest is going on.

This is also to suggest that while celebrities bring up certain problems, they don’t really talk about the structural problems that caused the crisis we are in, in the first place. This is the real issue with celebrity philanthropy.

While I agree with her assessment that there is an over-reliance of market mechanism for philanthropic activities, we seem to be enveloped in the market, the world over. There seems to be little space, if any for transactions or discourses to occur outside of the market mechanism. How does one impact lives outside of the market mechanism?

There are mechanisms and tools available to reach people and meet their needs. One is to explore traditional systems of charity, for instance religious giving to one’s place of worship or charitable organizations that are faith-affiliated. My dissertation work looked at some of these possibilities.

Indeed there needs to be greater space for personal benevolence and charity to occur, but the manner and speed with which celebrity philanthropy is occurring is not without its flaws.