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.

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