When civil society organisations flex their “knowledge muscles” and engage with donors on more equitable platforms, the potential of philanthropy to run away with the agenda becomes difficult.
In the past year, philanthropy has come under the microscope as having the potential to be a source of undue influence exerted in social and political spheres. Some have gone so far as to suggest that philanthropy should be regarded as a credible threat to democracy.
Leading this school of thought is Rob Reich, professor of political science and co-director of the Stanford Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society. In his book Philanthropy and Democratic Societies: History, Institutions, Values Reich argues that “big philanthropy” is not compatible with democracy. He sees it as an unfettered, massive resource that is not answerable to anyone outside of the people who are allocating the funding.
He also believes that this is a dangerous phenomenon as philanthropy therefore has the power to shift the course of societies, political agendas, education reforms, scientific innovation and appreciably affect entire communities without consultation, due process or reasonable accountability.
A big worry therefore is that if philanthropy is employed in this manner, it may well have the potential and the power to topple governments and subvert critical societal structures. In addition, Reich is disquieted by the notion of philanthropic foundations that wield this kind of influence existing in perpetuity, answerable to no-one.
This is, for many, a disturbing perspective on philanthropy which for centuries has been seen as the practical embodiment of the Greek idea of philanthropos, meaning “love of mankind” or “useful to man”.
In other words, philanthropy and “doing good” have become interchangeable in our vocabulary and here we are being reminded that philanthropy has the potential to wreck as successfully as it has the capacity to build. The freedom to fund experimentation and spark potentially revolutionary innovation that is too expensive or too nebulous is one of philanthropy’s great strengths, and one which would most likely not be possible if it were held to the commonly accepted norms of public accountability.
Big philanthropy seldom worries too much about having pressure brought to bear on grant-making from external agencies. This is both a strength and a weakness. Being free of external responsibility is, in and of itself, not bad.
If freedom from external influence results in an inflexible and rigid grant-making practice that is highly problematic, but it is also true that freedom from external influence can help grant-makers listen attentively to the societies, individuals and communities that they wish to support and assist through innovative grant-making – a definite strength. How the power of grant-making is embraced becomes a critical factor.
We would be denying human fallibility if we did not acknowledge that there is the potential for misuse in conditions where the balance of power is unequal. Philanthropy has money to give away. Civil society requires money in order to exist. Ideally, they meet only when they both share the same vision of a future that can be achieved by remedying the present.
A large part of the responsibility for supplying the checks and balances for philanthropy lies squarely on the shoulders of civil society. We hear much about the notion that philanthropy needs civil society if it is to see the results of expending funds that benefit individuals and communities and that achieve strong strategic and operational goals. In South Africa we are seeing increasing evidence of civil society stepping firmly into their authority as sector experts, programme design and delivery professionals, advocators of policy and powerful communicators in the sectors in which they work.
When civil society organisations flex their “knowledge muscles” and engage with donors on more equitable platforms, the potential of philanthropy to run away with the agenda becomes difficult. Its ability to be a source of undue influence is lessened and it can better underpin democracy. Thus, while concepts by Reich and others certainly provide food for thought, I believe the risks are overstated. In practice the benefits of philanthropy outweigh the risks.
Co-authored by Nazli Abrahams, Inyathelo programme director and Gillian Mitchell, Inyathelo Associate.