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.

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.

“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?

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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.’

 

How to measure what matters : Nonprofit management 101

The nonprofit industry is obsessed with one thing : measurement. For those who do research or are involved in actual program delivery in the nonprofit sector, this desire to ‘measure spoons’ as Alnoor Ebrahim, a Harvard University professor calls it, can translate into a variety of things. There are a great many metrics that are often considered, when evaluating if a nonprofit is doing its job. For instance, people ask if the proportion of money spent on programs versus program administration (overheads) is ‘reasonable’. There are industry norms, suggesting that if an organization spends ‘too much’ then it is wasting people’s money. We base many of these arguments on the fact that they are the ‘rational’ thing to do. In a world, where philanthropy i.e., scientific way of doing charity has overtaken all other forms, this call for rationality and scientific ways of measuring this is but natural. But the really rational or ‘substantively rational’ question should be: what should we measure. And why? What impact does this have, in the long term.

Max Weber was one of the more prominent thinkers who write largely about rationality and how it is shaping our world. This short paper offers an in-depth discussion of the different types of rationalities that Weber expounded, upon. To summarize it, he posited there being four different types of rationalities: practical, theoretical, substantive and formal.

The ‘disenchantment’ of the world that leads to greater ‘rationalities’ of the formal, practical and theoretical type are evident in the field of philanthropy, as well. By this, I mean, there is a move away from ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning based on an other-worldly’ sense of why we do charity or philanthropy. There is a growing sense that an act is justified or carried out towards an end. As Kalberg (1980) points out, the four types of social actions: affectual, traditional, value- rational, and means-end rational action are the core traits of ‘human’ actions and are outside of historical man.

Substantitive rationality ‘directly orders action into pattern.’ In seeking this form of rationality, one asks, not “what good is there at the end of the action” but rather, “should one even carry this out” and “what good will come out of this action,” in other words, this form of thinking is based on an ethical disposition of what is right and wrong.

Coming back to our initial discussion, if one were to use a substantive rational dispositions, one might : what is being measured and why? Does what we measure matter? And if so, how?

Ebrahim warns us in his piece Let’s be realistic about measuring impact, that “ It is crucial to identify when it makes sense to measure impacts and when it might be best to stick with outputs — especially when an organization’s control over results is limited, and causality remains poorly understood.”He suggests that simply repeating the mantra that measurement matters won’t get us there. There needs to be a long-term commitment to research and collaboration.

 

As Dan Pallotta argues in his book The Uncharitable that how we measure overheads is problematic. He gives the example of two soup kitchens: Kitchen A and Kitchen B. Assuming that Kitchen A spends only 10% of their revenues on overheads and Kitchen B spends about 30%. If this were all one knew, then one would judge Kitchen B harshly, saying they are producing a lot of waste. However, if one discovers that Kitchen A offers very bad quality soup, in poor conditions, while Kitchen B produces very high quality soup, at a great environment, then our perception of the services may change. This is a classic example of using substantive rationality, in making decisions.

There is a strong argument to be made for measuring only a few things, but asking more hard-nosed questions that get to the heart of why we are measuring a thing and at what point in time of the project life-cycle. Not to do so may actually lead to bad and hasty decision making.

 

 

 

How to fix the world – Use your head or heart?

Climate change. Refugee crisis. Unemployment.  Poverty.  Think of these issues or any other countless ‘wicked’ problems and if you are reasonable, like most people; one question sounds in your head: “Do we know all the facts?”. Do we know the ‘right’ approach to fix these issues?  While the ‘facts’ are available to address and solve most of these problems, often, what triumphs in the form of policies and actions taken are based not on technocratic solutions, but value laden opinions. You think policy makers use their head all the time? Think again.

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In a discussion with a senior administrator of a major research university, last week; I brought up this question. To my query of whether most decision makers use the ‘head’ or ‘heart’, she gave me a very interesting answer. The person ( let’s call her Ms.A) said that most of the times, she has seen less of technocratic solutions and more of normative answers. Technocracy or ‘methods’ based solutions are offered very few times and often are not the ones chosen because such solutions can only take us so far.  How does one, for instance, deal with a million people showing up on your borders – when your own country is dealing with unemployment? Do you turn these desperate people and shove them in the sea, to drown? Or do you appeal to normative and moral claims, to tackle the issue, at hand? While there are multiple perspectives at hand, and those who want to justify their decisions on technocratic basis: we are undergoing a recession, OR ‘These people don’t fit in here’ can use any combination of excuses to make the decisions that reflect their values. But ultimately, all such decisions that take place in the public domain are at the end, reflective of our normative values. Even bureaucrats don’t blindly implement laws, but rather implement them based on their own interpretation of it. Dwight Waldo, one of the greatest contemporary thinkers and scholars of Public Administration showed this, in his work.

Even when we write ‘laws’ and ‘rules’ to do things, most decisions take place in a gray area, where  idealism meets pragmatism. It is important to be aware of this, as much as this may be against or for our interests. Sometimes, bad laws get passed because they reflect the values of those who make them and at other times, good laws get made and implemented. To lay claim to a pure ‘objectivity’ in matters of public discourse and action, is foolish. Perhaps, it is the heart that triumphs, most of the time. We just need to ensure that those who make laws have theirs, in the right place.