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.

Religion in the Public Sphere – Good, Bad or Ugly?


With Christmas, ‘War on Christmas’ and ‘Creeping Shariah’ dominating our headlines, it looks like religion is making a comeback in  public discourse. Unfortunately, it seems to be for the wrong reasons – barring the Pope’s recent gestures of reconciliation with homosexuals and other minorities. But that doesn’t stop his critics from painting him as a ‘communist.’ Speaking of religion, it seems one is damned if you do take a position, or damned if you don’t take one. But in my case, I will take a position and point out (as others have) that religion can have a positive impact in the public sphere.

Image source :
Image source :

 The first time I had to deal with the issue of religion in public sphere was during my stint at Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN), an NGO that encouraged and trained young American Muslims to enter public service- broadly defined as anything from the nonprofit sector, media to the government. I served as its Executive Director for a year in 2012 and working in D.C. saw the implications of even mentioning Islam in public sphere. To be honest, for the most, things were ok. I would occasionally run into someone who would ask me absurd questions about our mission and who funds us, but other than that, things were ok. I saw these as ‘educational’opportunities and part of an adventure of working with a ‘hot button’ issue. With suspicions about our work and mission, the entire organization was on a watch, so as not to be perceived as something that we were not. Clearly, many of these fears were unfounded. It is only later that I started grappling with these issues at a theoretical level. Practice has informed my theoretical understanding, in this case.

Why are these issues so important? For one, because we are living in a diverse society and also with diverse claims made by various faith-based groups. With the (false) alarms of Shari’a creeping into the American system and some very real instances of the neoconservative influence on American policy (both domestic and foreign) in the recent past, religion and politics are inextricably tied in the policy debates and popular imagination in the U.S. The question that this gives rise to is: Should religion be part of the body politic? What role should –if any- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism or for that matter any religion have in shaping public laws and morality? These are deep questions that don’t have a simple answer. And the fact that these keep coming up, time and again, in various shapes and form, begs us to look at them carefully and examine them for what they are worth. Given the high levels of religiosity in the U.S. and despite decline in religiosity in some quarters (Evangelical Christianity for one) religion as a social and political force is still strong. So, in this short essay, I will point out the benefits and dangers of this trend of religion in the public sphere – using Faith-based organizations (FBOs) as an example. Talal Asad, Robert P. George and Jose Casanova have written about these issues and I will use their ideas to examine the topic at hand. This is an ongoing debate and while I will argue for greater inclusion of FBOs in the public sphere, the debate is still open and my own understanding of these issues is still being shaped. Before that, we also need a clearer understanding of ‘secularism’ and ‘secularization’ processes and our assumptions about them.

Religion in the public sphere: Challenge to modernity and secularism? 

Robert P.George, considered one of the leading conservative intellectual has argued that there is nothing in the U.S. constitution that demands that religion not be part of the public space in politics. In this short video, he points out that separation of church and state don’t actually appear in the constitution. The establishment clause gives freedom to people from interference from the federal government. He argues that a robust polity in which all people with their values, drawn from their religious norms, should be able to participate to shape policies that they think are right and just. He goes on to point out: “Since its establishment by Congress, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stood for religious freedom in its most robust sense. It has recognized that the right to religious freedom is far more than a mere “right to worship.”

It is a right that pertains not only to what the believer does in the synagogue, church, or mosque, or in the home at mealtimes or before bed; it is the right to express one’s faith in the public as well as private sphere and to act on one’s religiously informed convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship.” This may seem all good in theory, but are there problems with this perspective? There are quite a few, and one of the key ones is that this could be extremely distorted when a majority wants to enforce its will on others, through policy measures or other means. The pro-choice discourse is a classic case – and one that is not settled, yet.

Along similar lines, in his most popular and important book, Public Religions in the Modern World Jose Casanova, talks about religion and how it interacts with politics and culture in the public space. He has argued that the Secularization hypothesis has proved to be wrong and the growth of religion across the world is proof of this. “Secularization” as the end of mankind’s evolution and is a normative condition – and precondition for modern politics (through privatization of religion) and understood as emancipation from religious norms. He also points out the plural character of secularization processes. “We are in a ‘post-secular’ society,” Casanova points out.

In Europe, Casanova argues that since the Reformation, all great revolutions and changes, have been lead by secularists. Europe has had tensions between church and capitalists. In the U.S., there has been no tension between religion and capitalists as in Europe and hence, progressive movements appeal to religious values, not secular ones. “The U.S. has always been a paradigmatic case and the secular came aided by the religious,” he points out. It would be ludicrous to point out that the U.S. is less modern than Europe, since there is less differentiation in the U.S. The European category of Secularism is not relevant for the U.S. as it did not have a church to be disestablished. This analytic conceptualization is key, he further argues.

Casanova is pointing out here that there are different types of Secularisms, as much as there are different types of “modernities” as Charles Taylor has argued. To just think of one model of secularism, as it has occurred in the West is not fair and perhaps he goes on to point out that even within the West, there are significant differences. The way secularism is understood in the U.S. is not the same as it is understood in Europe. In the U.S. people are generally proud to be religious, whereas in continental Europe, much the opposite is true. “Even if people are religious, they will lie, saying they are nonbelievers,” he adds.

Talal Asad addresses these questions through addressing the discourse of Secularism. Asad also starts saying that “If anything is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable. But does it follow that secularism is not universally valid?” He further argues that the fact that secularism emerged in a certain western context, under certain circumstances and relationships of the state, with that of religion, it cannot be considered universally valid, for all times. The rise of secularism with the modern nation-state is undisputed and he cites Charles Taylor as another eminent thinker who has mentioned this idea.

            He further argues that the notion of secularism as used to denote a very clear set of ideals is also problematic, as in the west also there are several models of secularism for example that in England, where the Church has a prominent role to play in the affairs of the state, although indirectly. The definition of secularism and that of secular societies has scope to accommodate enough contradictions, he points out. The repeated intolerance in the United States, a largely Christian country with a secular constitution can still be understood as part of the characteristic that defines a ‘modern secular state,’ he says.


FBOs as a paradigmatic case

Faith-based organizations are unique in their reach and scope of services. With the growth of Catholic Church and increased diversity in the U.S. and also growth of other faith denominations in the country, the debate about the role of FBOs has become salient. Bill Clinton’s passage of the Charitable Choice and George W.Bush’s further championing of these initiatives in opening the Office of Faith-based Initiatives at the White House is seen widely as pushing a religious agenda in politics.

While this is partly true, the other side of the story is that the state has retrenched from its provision of social services. In a marketized economy, where these services were ‘outsourced’ to FBOs’, these organizations came to fill in the service. Though they have not been able to and possibly can never replace the government agencies, in terms of scope of work or their reach; they still exist and continue to provide important services.

FBOs can be seen as this bridge between religious institutions and the state – and in this sense, they are also controversial. Charitable choice provisions did make it possible for congregations to receive funds from the state directly. So, where does this leave us with? Are FBOs just proxies for the state and have the freedom to do their work, as long as they donot proselytize?

One of the ways to think of them is how Robert Wuthnow has argued – that is to look at them as organizations, who just have a different mission; but for all practical purposes, function as other secular organizations. A much deeper examination of organizational theory and dynamics is warranted here, and I will deal with that in another blog post. For now, suffice it to say that though there are different degrees of how much faith informs the mission of an FBO, not all are out to push their ‘religious’ agenda, as one would fear. There is some evidence that

So, in conclusion, I think there is space for FBOs in the public sphere and by extrapolation, for the expression of religion in the public sphere. Much good has come from religious expression too. Beyond the psychological explanation that Carl Jung pointed out. And for practical reasons – both at the level of individual and group identity, they are playing a key role in American society. When it comes to issues of social justice, equality and taking care of the vulnerable, FBOs are known to do a good job-infact, a better job than government agencies, as Robert Wuthnow and Ram Cnaan have pointed out in their research. FBOs can be helpful in solving many of our problems, but only if they do not end up promoting their own brand of religion/ sectarian ideology. This is critical for those recipients of their services, who do not agree with their ideology, to feel they are not being pressured.