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.

Are corporations going to save America?

With the recent Executive Order banning entry of people from seven Middle Eastern countries, the nation is in uproar. This order also includes refugees, who were fleeing violence and oppression in Syria, among other countries.

The fact that several companies such as Lyft and Starbucks have stepped up and spoken out against this order is heart-warming. While Lyft donated a million dollars to ACLU, Starbucks has announced that it will hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, globally. Others such as Uber, have stood by the government’s decision – either by inaction or by remaining silent. And for this, many of their customers are punishing them.

What does this mean, fundamentally? At the surface level, it looks like a bunch of corporations standing up to the President of the US.

At a deeper level it could mean that even the President of the US cannot stop globalization. It also means that corporations are interested in keeping diversity intact, especially in a country such as the US, which was built by immigrants and refugees.

What does this signal for the future of Corporate Social Responsibility? We will have to wait and watch, as this could mean a new era of social justice issues taking forefront, rather than other forms of CSR activities being pursued.

At least for now, this is a welcome sign that some of the biggest and most influential firms will not stand by when the fundamental values of their business are threatened.  They may at least contribute to the ‘saving of America’ from forces that want to make it exclusive, mean and small.

How will the new administration and its policies impact the Nonprofit sector?

I recently attended the ARNOVA Conference, the annual conference of ARNOVA, a leading organization that is dedicated to research of the Voluntary and Nonprofit sector. As one of the most important convenings of its kind; this conference brings together both scholars and practitioners from around the world.

This year, there were close to 1000 attendees, from around the world. As someone who pays attention to this sector, I was interested in documenting some of the key changes that one can expect in the coming year, with a Trump administration. What would the sector look like, in the coming year and what factors would contribute towards that? Here are some key points, based on a conversation that took place between three leading practitioners/ observers of the sector :

  • The changes in the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare – as it is popularly known will impact all levels of government, both local and federal. As the Council on Nonprofit’s Tim Delaney pointed out, this is one of the biggest shocks that may hit the system. Depending on how the Obamacare is rolled back, this may mean that states have to pay up more of the Medicare funds etc. and any moves at the federal level can trickle down to the state and local governments
  • The second key point is that ‘repealing the estate tax and capping itemized deductions at $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for couples.’ This, according to one analysis, ‘would cause charitable giving to decline by between 4.5 percent and 9 percent, or as much as $26.1 billion per year.’ This is a significant change, if it occurs.
  • Nonprofit Electioneering Ban : As the NCNP argues, the ‘Johnson Amendment’ that prohibits 501 c 3s from engaging in political campaigning may be lifted, as that is one of the promises made by the Trump administration.

As Stacey Palmer of the Chronicle of Philanthropy pointed out, there may be more introspection on part of nonprofits and scholars, in terms of what nonprofits can do and their limitations. The public may get swayed by rhetoric that nonprofits can fix all problems, but that is simply not true, she warned; pointing out the severe resource constraints that many nonprofits work under.

So, what will the new administration bring, that will shake up the sector?  potentially quite a few changes, but one can hope that these are not deleterious to the sector or the people that it serves.

Is the ‘American mythos’ in need of revision?

I am writing this on the second day of election results, that have shaken the country; rather badly. With the election of Donald Trump, Washington D.C., is in mourning. It looks and feels like almost all of the country is at the precipice of something. Mainstream media are still coming to terms with what this means. While the pundits speculate and those who have won celebrate, the question that seems to be at the back of everyone’s mind – and this is a very serious one – is whether the U.S. will stop being a ‘land of opportunities.’ By this, most people mean an inclusive society, where everyone stands a fair chance of succeeding, despite one’s origins, social status or religious beliefs.

At first glance, it looks like everything that the progressives fought for is at stake. There is enough empirical proof for this fear. Consider this : In his memo, Mr. Trump has indicated that he will scrap all ‘unconstitutional Executive Orders’ of President Obama in his first 100 days. In addition, he has also indicated that he will ‘remove criminal illegal immigrants’ and ‘suspend immigration from terror prone regions’ meaning putting an end to the refugee resettlement plans. Also, significantly, he has promised to cancel payments to the UN Climate Change plans.

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York
source : https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Statue_of_Liberty,_NY.jpg

While each of these will impact an area of American public life, what is at stake is ultimately how Americans define who they are and the ‘myths’ that uphold their sense of identity. As Robert Wuthnow points out in his book  American Mythos, the myths of American being a ‘land of opportunity’ that gives everyone a fair chance is true only because a lot of people ( if not all) believe in it, and work to make it possible. If there is a seismic shift in this attitude, and there is great skepticism and nationalism – combined with isolationism – as we are seeing globally, with Brexit and the recent reaction in the US Elections, then this myth may well be no longer believed.

In this interview, Wuthnow offers an insight into materialism and immigration. Using the perspective of materialism among immigrants, he suggests that the sense of hardship and sacrifice were part of their narratives.  These narratives helped shape their immigrant identity. There seems to be a clash of narratives taking place now. With the rise of a nativist narratives, that are defining America being only a place for caucasians?  The blatant racism that was on play during the election seems to be playing out, with increased incidents of racist attacks, as several media are reporting – across the country.

The narratives of migration, opportunity and freedom have defined America. If these shift in a major way, then everything that the country stands for will also change. We are already witnessing isolationism, nativism and protectionism in Europe and other parts of the world. Is this a trend that will catch up in the U.S., as well?

While it is too early to say how the next four years will shape up and what it would mean, for immigrants and others; who see the U.S. as their home; one can see that the meta-narratives about what the U.S. is, and what it stands for, is changing.

While there is no need to panic, I do believe it is time for right-thinking people to reexamine how the current political scenario will impact all Americans – whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

There is certainly need for more dialogue, tolerance and open mindedness on part of everyone. But the ball is certainly in the Republicans court. Given that the administration is going to be run by Mr.Trump’s side, and much of the rhetoric that has caused division has come from that camp, it falls on them to reach out and heal the wounds. It falls upon Mr. Trump to also be Presidential and stand up for what makes America a great nation – tolerance, openness, inclusiveness and creativity. To ignore this and to remain silent while his supporters create fear and intolerance would be betraying the very values that made his success possible.

 

 

“What about public service?” you ask…

When it comes to the discourse of charity, philanthropy and ‘doing good’ most people don’t consider working for the government, in a ‘public service’ role as being particularly altruistic. But consider this :  Most public servants ( whether working for federal government, state or even a nonprofit) make much less salary than a comparably educated person, at a ‘for-profit’ firm. I have met some of the smartest, best educated people working for the government; with the motivation to ‘serve.’ While this may sound hunkie-dory for the capitalists amongst us, I would like to believe that there is such a thing as a public service motivation and it is important to sustain this motivation, to ensure there is a solid, working bureaucracy and a society that honors such traits.May be it is our evolutionary disposition to value those who sacrifice something for us, or  a social norm to value those who do good.

Regardless, this trait is something to be considered when evaluating how one spends one’s life, and is often a criterion for selecting leaders in the public sphere. Particularly, in a society where time is money, and in some cases more important than money; giving of one’s self, to others; in the form of time; efforts and psychic attention and energy is a valuable commodity.

Volunteer hours are also quantified by nonprofits, just so you know. Most nonprofits report them in their annual reports.

As a group of people, Americans need to be reminded now, more than ever – given the election cycle – that such a ‘service’ motive is indeed important, to serve common good. Not just the ability to make money and throw it away.

If not for profit, for what?

nonprofit

I sat next to an older gentleman on my flight from D.C. to Atlanta, GA. While he was quite in the beginning and was absorbed in his newspapers, a quick smile and conversation started him talking. And despite his strong southern accent – he was from Alabama – we managed to discuss a lot of ideas on this short trip.

One of the first things he said when I pointed out that I was working in the nonprofit sector was that it’s all a sham. “It is all about tax write-offs, ultimately, someone has to pay for all that service.” He argued.

While I do meet the occasional Libertarian, who brushes off all feel-good work of nonprofits as just instances of market catallaxy, or the ‘entrepreneur’, who quite genuinely scoffs at the idea of the nonprofit being a sector, the truth is that about 10 percent of Americans are employed in this sector and it is one of the most enduring parts of American work-force and cultural landscape. Nonprofits today are growing and thriving, if anything. There is no denying that this sector is important and worthy of our attention, even if we don’t believe in how it operates or its assumptions.

This conversation brought to mind the famous book by Dennis Young, ‘If not for profit, for what’?  In this book, he has argued for a behavioral theory of studying the nonprofit sector.  In terms of framing the study or discourse of nonprofits, young suggests that the demand side of nonprofits has been studied quite extensively, i.e, how nonprofits provide public goods as studied by Burton Weisbrod and as providers of ‘trust goods’ as offered by Henry Hansmann – where nonprofits ‘asymmetric information led consumers to prefer nonprofits over less trustworthy for-profit providers.’ What this means is that there is a market-gap in most areas, where consumers/ citizens don’t have access to the best information and in the absence of that, for-profits would – given their motivation to make as much money as possible- make use of this gap. On the other hand, a non-profit, which has a service motive is not likely to indulge in this sort of behavior.

Young offers an explanation that the ‘supply’ side of nonprofit behavior has not been extensively analyzed and this can help understand the motivations for why people work in this sector and why it even exists. He uses entrepreneurship as a motivating factor to understand the sector. His framing of the nonprofit sector leadership and motivations as ‘entrepreneurship’ is key to our discussion. Most nonprofit leaders and organizations are trying to solve some social problems for which there is no market solution. Or if there is, it is too expensive or exclusionary.

As Peter Frumkin, writing in this book suggests “The value of his (Young’s) early contribution was and continues to be his focus on the way the values, personal traits, and skill sets of individual entrepreneurs are a useful starting point in understanding where nonprofit ideas and organizations originate.”  By this means that the focus of most scholarship and discourse has been on why market failure has been responsible for the rise of nonprofits, while there hasn’t been much focus on the supply side – meaning why individuals do what they do, in the context of social organizations and institutions. The study of values, motivations and drives is key as well. This also explains the rise of the civil society sector in the U.S., which Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about, in Democracy in America.

Back to the question: if not for profit, then for what? The answer to this lies in both normative and philosophical dimensions. Sometimes profit is not the key motive. It could be service or the desire to make a difference. The motive to serve public and do ‘good’ is inherent in the social sector, of which nonprofits are a part. This also means that we need to take into account other motives, other than pure profit motive, that drives individuals to serve and work in these forms of organizations. The market and government cannot provide all answers to questions before us, hence the need for nonprofits.

Does Bill Gates’s philanthropy make a difference?

I have been reading about the philanthropy of the super-rich or the Hi-Networth individuals ( HNW) as they are called. The media celebrates wealthy people, and their acts. As the saying goes, a wealthy’s man’s joke is always funny and few question the ‘good works’ of the super-wealthy. With the ‘Giving Pledge’ and similar initiatives, the super-wealthy have come together to give their wealth away, to the poor. Noble indeed, but is it all there is to this story?

Not quite, point out some scholars and activists/ thinkers. bill-gates-wide-wallpaper-3790One of the interesting arguments that is out there is that their philanthropy or giving can do good, but also cause harm. How so, you might ask? 

For starters, there are two arguments against HNW doing more ‘good’ for the world.

  1. By picking their own visions of what needs to be done, and setting their own agenda, the HNW individuals may ‘distort’ the priorities of the given location/ country, where they are working
  2. HNW can become a facade for showcasing ‘benevolence’ while ignoring the ground reality in many of these situations and the structural inequality that produced that massive amount of wealth disparities.

Lets look at each criticism, in turn.

Firstly, as this post points out, the fact that the HNW individual/ foundation can set its own priorities, which may, in some cases; go against the policies of the country/ region they are working in, can distort the situation. What if, for instance; the national government wants to implement a certain program, which the administrators there think is far more important than what the ‘experts’ of the foundation think? How do the actions of this foundation reflect? Who is this HNW or foundation accountable to?

Secondly, the involvement of private sector players, that are often driven by bottom-lines and profits in policy making is problematic, as the same article points out. The network can soon become a ‘group-think’ exercise, which may leave out the best solution, and decrease changes that the best solutions will be adopted; in favor of those solutions or ideas that the foundation favors. Redtapism and favoritism can begin to take root, in these contexts.

Finally, the question of priorities comes up. As Bowman points out” Research by Devi Sridhar at Oxford University warns that philanthropic interventions are ‘radically skewing public health programmes towards issues of the greatest concern to wealthy donors’. ‘Issues,’ she writes, ‘which are not necessarily top priority for people in the recipient country.’”   This disparity in power, in putting the priorities on the table is a worrying trend, indeed.

At the same time, there is no denying that several thousands, if not millions of lives have been saved by the Malaria and other vaccines that these foundations have given out.

So, how does one evaluate the work of HNW philanthropists/ Foundations?

There are no easy answers, as in life. The question itself is a political one and the answer one offers depends on one’s  worldview.

The alternative, as many; including the President of Ford Foundation has pointed out – and even Bill Gates acknowledges, is to make sure that the structural issues, that cause poverty are tackled. There is a need to ensure that everyone is able to access healthcare, good quality education and other amenities that make for a complete and ‘free’ life. But this is easier said than done, especially in a system that is skewed towards the rich and well-connected, even in a ‘developed world.’

As long as there is sensitivity to local needs and inputs from the governments/ agencies that are in the regions, then the foundations can actually do a lot of good, ensuring that the local infrastructure is built up and people don’t perpetually depend on the largesse of the rich and famous.

If this is not kept in mind, then such philanthropy can become an exercise in publicity and in an effort to further establish the ‘greater glory of rich.’