Thursday, April 15, 2010


The highlight of the just-concluded AFP* International Conference in Baltimore was Archbishop Desmond Tutu's well practiced and no doubt frequently delivered haves/haves-not speech.

Perhaps better than anyone else he dramatically takes to task and lauds philanthropy for tackling injustice, poverty, ill health, lack of educational access, decent housing, life's basics, discrimination and all the rest. His delivery is in turn elfin or arch; clever by half, outraged, a High Episcopal version of brimstone preaching, and determinedly modest. At times I wonder at the enormous inner ego needed for the outward face of humility. Nonetheless I doubt that anyone sensate can fail to respond to him and his message; it certainly got me thinking about the difference between philanthropy and charity.

In 1990 Teresa Odendahl wrote a book called "Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite" (New York: Basic Books) It was written during the "Points of Light" years of the Kinder Bush. One reviewer W. H. Locke summed up her thesis:

" ... About half of philanthropy is donated by multimillionaires. Most of this money goes to groups that sustain the culture, education, policy positions, and status of the well-to-do. Rich people, for example, support the 'high art' offerings of symphonies and ballets; the hospitals to which they contribute usually are not public facilities, but overwhelmingly private institutions, most of whose patients have insurance. Contrary to popular belief, less than a third of nonprofit organizations serve the needy. In fact, the wealthy end up funding their own interests."

In 2008 (2009 figures have not yet been released by Giving USA Foundation) gifts from living individuals and bequests were about $240 billion. If anything the percentage contributed by the wealthiest Americans has gone up - more and more wealth is accreted by, and in the hands of, fewer and fewer. At the same time the self-interest phenomenon Terry describes has not changed. Charity begins at home and apparently stays there in health care, the arts and education.

Philanthropy might be defined as giving that doesn't benefit the giver directly and though that may or may not be in measurable decline neither has it expanded enough or been directed to reach the poorest people on the planet. All those text messages, adopt-a-child, flies-on-their-eyes charities, direct mail responses, online giving (still pretty marginal percentage wise) and anything ending in "... thon" don't aggregate a cutting difference.

Meanwhile government aid to human service agencies around the US is in retrenchment; this is true generally in free market economies around the world - and that is now most economies the old socialist models having largely withered. (An Indian banker told me "we tried socialism for 30 years. It was a disaster!"). Though the government safety net is still stronger everywhere else in the developed world than here in America those governments can't keep up either - especially in the second and third worlds where more and more are born into poverty, live in poverty, get sick in poverty and die in poverty - having made more children of their own along the way.

Though the last few years have been rocky for US philanthropy - and thoroughly devastating for charity (as I use the term here) - there are signs of deep breathing in an oxygenated economy and hyperventilating stock market. Giving is generally a lagging indicator of recession recovery but if the economy stays on an upward course philanthropy will bounce back as well.

But the distance between the haves and the have nots - and between philanthropy and charity - is not lessening. Archbishop Tutu is clearly an optimist and a believer in what may be possible. I so wish he turns out to be right.

*Association of Fundraising Professionals


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