When St. Thomas reflected on charity, and in particular alms-giving, he stressed the immediacy and locality of it: charity requires intimate knowledge of its recipient, the proper selection of means, attendance to effects, the right motivations for the givers, and so forth. In part, he stressed charity as an individual virtue rather than a collective effort.

Under the best of circumstances, acts of charity often fail to accomplish what was hoped. In an age as abstract and monumental as our own, charity becomes systematized, collectivized, centralized, and sentimentalized, making it not only less effective but also more susceptible to unintended consequences. (Attendees at last year’s FPR Conference will remember Bill Schambra’s brilliant presentation on this topic.)

Two recent pieces have highlighted the weaknesses of the “charitable-industrial complex.” Over at the Grey Lady, Peter Buffett describes  the difficulties of large-scale charitable giving and its unintended consequences. He writes:

Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

Why does it occur? Often to salve the conscience of the wealthy, who get to feel good about themselves without having to worry about the actual effects in people’s lives:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

While he doesn’t pose any useful solutions that would stress the principles of localism and ownership, he might at least get people to think twice about how philanthropy works. Meanwhile, in a reprint over at TruthOut, Prashanth Kamalakanthan discusses the destructive effects of large-scale philanthropy. In a more cynical, but perhaps more accurate, vein he writes:

While pretending to fix inequality, contemporary philanthropy’s actual role has been to strengthen the arrangements that make gross inequality possible in the first place. It has become a weapon in the class warfare of the 1%, the carrot to win people over to their ideology complementing the stick of political spending to coerce them into the same.

And further:

For all its failures, today’s philanthropy continues to succeed as a form of self-therapy for the world’s rich. The philanthropic elite have won out in a not-so-pretty world of entrenched and widening inequality, and their charitable giving helps hide the ugly truth of the situation — from us as well as themselves. Ruinously for us, though, the ways in which our misanthrope philanthropists contribute are significantly deepening the crisis at hand.

Anyone engaged in the world of philanthropy ought to be required to read Summa 2.2.23-46.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. From Peter Buffet’s article: “All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.”

    Sometimes it’s even the same person. Rich industrialist gets rich by centralizing, expanding, driving the smaller competitors out. This creates inequality and dislocation. Rich industrialist then sees social pathologies all around that cry out for paternalistic intervention, which he can now try to help with since he has a quasi-monopoly on money and power.

    I’m not picking on private industrialists, though. It’s even worse when a government does it, e.g. with nationalized health care systems. Back in the 60s people told us that private charity is demeaning, therefore government needs to provide entitlements. So far I haven’t seen a government-provided entitlement that isn’t more demeaning than private charity.

  2. “Development not charity” has been the slogan of the secular humanists for a very long time. I am writing a biography of Ernesto Cofiño, a Guatemalan pediatrician who had to confront this issue throughout his career. He was able to live face-to-face charity so well in the context of his professional work that he got the attention and the praise of the most convinced secular humanists. Some of these, he pursued to their death beds and helped them die in the presence of God.

  3. Expensive therapy and perpetuating inequality are not the only problems with big philanthropy. In the nonprofit world, the discussion these days is about the relentless drive toward “outcomes” and measurement. Most nonprofit people are not against measuring impact of programs to the extent possible to improve programming. Big philanthropic organizations and government have been pushing this for the past couple of decades, some of it to good effect. But it also served as an impetus to constantly shrink the funds available for general operations and administration. Because these don’t have direct “outcomes” on the client base, no one wants to fund them. All they want to fund is programming and direct services. How can an organization, either nonprofit or for-profit, run without a fiscal management, IT, reception, or utilities? Even the venerable United Way has jumped on this bandwagon, and no longer gives those small, unrestricted grants that came in so handy at the end of the year to help the soup kitchen, food pantry or homeless shelter close the books at the end of the year.

    Large scale, experimental philanthropist organizations often do more harm than good, imposing their models on local leadership as the price of a grant.

    Mr. Buffett is right as far as he goes. But there is a far broader problem disinvestment in our local community-based structures. Increasing centralization is happening with philanthropy and government funders who think of local leadership as simple tools to achieve the funder’s mission.

    More on my own blog: https://radicaliscious.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/numbers-games/

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