Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma, Part 1

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Simone Joyaux

“Justice comes before charity.” So said Pope John XXIII.

But I don’t find philanthropy all that just. Mostly, philanthropy pretty much reflects the status quo. And the status quo is not just.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect and love philanthropy, all kinds of philanthropy. I admire donors . . . whether they support the arts they love; the education they want for their kids; clean air and water. I honor donors who feed the hungry, house the homeless, and fight gang violence. I value donors who fight for reproductive rights—and though I disagree strongly, I acknowledge the right of donors who fight against a woman’s right to choose.

But I wish there was more philanthropy to ensure justice, rather than compensate for injustice.

There are two kinds of philanthropy: traditional philanthropy and social change (progressive) philanthropy. When I say “traditional philanthropy,” I refer to the most prevalent philanthropy, the dominant form of giving. In fact, this philanthropy doesn’t need an adjective. This is just philanthropy, voluntary action for the common good. Individuals, families, big corporations, and small businesses give money and volunteer time to build stronger communities. Philanthropy for the full gamut of endeavors, for example, human services, healthcare, education, arts and culture, the environment, and so much more.

But there’s another form of philanthropy, called social change or progressive philanthropy. This philanthropy focuses on root causes and supports systemic change. Equally important, perhaps sometimes more important. But certainly less known.

An oft-told story illustrates the difference between traditional philanthropy and social change / progressive philanthropy:

Imagine that you’re walking along a riverbank. Suddenly you notice babies floating down the river, drowning. What do you do? You jump into the river and rescue them. Others passing by join you, too. Thankfully, there are many volunteers rescuing the babies. And still others give money to develop programs to rescue the drowning babies. That’s philanthropy – and it is glorious.

So there you are, with so many others, rescuing the babies. Now along comes another person, walking on the riverbank. You call out to her, “come and help rescue the drowning babies.” But she hurries on, saying, “I’m going to the head of the river to figure out who is throwing the babies in and I’m going to stop them.” That’s social change/progressive philanthropy.

“Rescuing the babies” is the traditional and dominant approach to philanthropy. Going to the head of the river to fix the root cause is social change/progressive philanthropy. And sadly, fixing the root cause is less common and often controversial.

Of course, the choice is not either/or. Every society needs both. Each community needs donors and organizations that provide direct service and others that fight for change. Some organizations do both and some donors give to both. And, of course, everyone chooses his or her own interests and causes.


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My concern—nay my complaint—is that social change philanthropy is not well enough known in the nonprofit sector. Nor is there enough of this kind philanthropy to fix the root causes of problems. And with so many problems, we need more philanthropy to compensate. We need to compensate with philanthropy because we don’t have enough philanthropy to stop the problem. And so, Pope John XXIII said, “justice before charity.”

I’ll end Part 1 of this column with an insightful quote from a wonderful book, Inspired Philanthropy: Creating a Giving Plan, by Tracy Gary and Melissa Kohner. When distinguishing between traditional and social change/progressive philanthropy, Tracy and Melissa say:

“Traditional philanthropy is based on responding to, treating and managing the consequences of life in a society with a capital-based economy. Progressive philanthropy . . . analyses and responds more to cause than effect. Progressive philanthropy supports . . . social change . . . actions that seek to right the imbalances of an unjust society or unequal distribution of resources . . . often making people, institutions, and government uncomfortable . . . Progressive philanthropy . . . challenges the assumptions that economic and social inequities are somehow unavoidable as the price of progress or prosperity.”

To read more about Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma, see Chapter 25 in my book Keep Your Donors. Also see the monograph on my website.

  • AMY HARRIS

    Insightful article. I guess my complaint, which is related to Ms. Joyaux’s complaint about social change philanthropy not being well known in the nonprofit sector, is that it’s challenging for social change organizations to secure funding from non-individuals (foundations, corporations, etc.). Outcomes for social change organizations are not as easily measured as those of direct service organizations. Social change outcomes may also not be as attractive to funders as say the number of meals served on Thanksgiving. Systemic change takes time, but so often non-individual funders are not in it for the long haul. I look forward to reading Part II.

  • Laura Berry

    I join Simone in wishing that the roots of justice were more prominently on display in philanthropy. One simple approach could be asking all endowed institutions to be active shareholders. Foundations can and should learn about the shareholder proposals that arrive in the “mailboxes” of the investment firms that manage non-profit endowment, would go a long way toward healing and reforming the impact of the market collapse. Funding justice work is so important AND paying attention to justice as investors is too. Foundations like the Nathan Cummings Foundation are wonderful examples. Whether through program related investing or simply voting the institution’s proxies each year, endowed institutions can create more just and sustainable corporate practices by using their power as shareholders.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks, Laura and Amy. Yes, too many non-individual funding sources prefer to invest in direct service. Direct service is easier to understand and easier to measure impact. Systemic change is so long term. For example, think about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech – and the promise that someday… And that day has not yet truly arrived. This is not a post-racial country, despite the election of Barack Obama.
    Bottom line: social justice is really scary. Social justice means that those with privilege may lose some of their privilege. Foundations and corporations are some of the most status quo organizations that exist. And questioning the status quo is very very very challenging.
    I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to anyone – or any group – that questions the status quo. And after questioning, then steps up to invest in social change by speaking out, giving money, and so forth.