Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma, Part 2

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Simone Joyaux

Have you noticed: the less social justice we have, the more philanthropy we need? Ironic, isn’t it? We need more philanthropy because we refuse to deal with social injustice.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that makes philanthropy necessary.”

So what’s social injustice? It’s not enough for a community to feed the hungry in soup kitchens. How about paying a living wage so people can buy their own food? It isn’t enough to teach people how to fish; we have to give them a place on the river so they can fish.

And all that justice can be controversial. We live in a society that wants Wal-Mart prices. But it’s tough to have Wal-Mart prices and a living wage. Pollution demands strong environmental protection laws and tough enforcement. But that means fighting corporate interests, and we want that corporation in our town for economic development. And it goes on and on, over and over.

And another thing: injustice is contagious. King talked about that, too: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Such a great irony. If we gave more money to stop injustice, then we would have less injustice and less need to compensate for injustice through traditional mainstream philanthropy. Surely that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said philanthropy was commendable, but…

So why isn’t there more giving for social change? Why isn’t there more commitment to progressive philanthropy in our communities, in the nonprofit sector, amongst our donors?  Well, social justice is pretty scary – because it means social change. And social change is really scary – just consider this description: “Social change means community empowerment, redistribution of resources, and transformation of social and institutional systems that perpetuate all forms of inequity.” (Thanks, Frank J. Omowale Satterwhite.)

Did you notice that phrase “redistribution of resources”? Yes, indeed, I might need to pay more taxes. And my own personal privilege might be somewhat compromised or reduced. Oh wow, how scary is that! (See Part 3 of this column, coming up soon!)

You know what I believe? I think philanthropy should be a democratizing act. I think philanthropy can, should, and must amplify all voices, especially those that are traditionally ignored. I expect philanthropy to be an empowerment tool.

“Giving isn’t a posture reserved for the rich or the powerful. It is the responsibility and privilege of every man, woman, and child to participate in the task for building more just and humane societies.” So says Alfre Woodard in her introduction to the marvelous book Robin Hood Was Right. (You must read this book!)

But back to Part 1 of this column, most philanthropy is traditional and mainstream. Most workers in the nonprofit sector, including fundraisers, don’t know the difference between traditional philanthropy and social change / progressive philanthropy. Surely the leaders of the nonprofit sector should know the difference – and respect both.

So think about you and your job and your role as a leader. Do you know the distinctions between the two types of philanthropy? Are you sufficiently fluent to be able to discuss both to some degree? Do you see injustice, recognize it, and understand the challenges to change?

See more about Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma in Chapter 25 in my book Keep Your Donors.

  • Charlie Bernstein

    Great article. Thanks! You’re right: [i]Robin Hood Was Right[/i] is a must for foundations and philanthropists.

    Here at Maine Initiatives (, we fund groups organizing for social, economic, and environmental justice.

    Our goal is to build the social justice movement. We especially recognize the need for general operating support, multi-year grants, seed grants for promising programs, and long-term funding of groups that are having an impact.

    And we’re not the only change-not-charity foundation around.

    To learn more about the small but vital world of foundations that actively support advocacy, policy change, and grassroots organizing, you can get in touch with such networks as National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NRCP,, Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG,, and the Funding Exchange (

    NCRP’s downloadable publication [i]Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best[/i] stresses the importance of funding social justice organizations. Center for Community Change ( and its Linchpin Project are providing concrete metrics to demonstrate the effectiveness of grassroots organizing in alleviating poverty and inequity.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks, Charlie, for your response to the columns on philanthropy’s moral dilemma. Congratulations to the Maine Initiatives for its justice work. More foundations, more organizations, more fundraising professionals – and more donors, too – need to know about this other approach to philanthropy.

  • Jara Dean-Coffey

    Hi Simone,

    Thanks for opening the curtain on the moral dilemma. It is an interesting position given the tension in the field beween innovation and rigor, best practices and community driven approaches. Both of which are about the how as opposed to the “to what end?” It continues to remain eaiser to talk about what we are going to do as opposed to the change we seek to make.

    That being said more foundations who have engaged in more progressive, provocative and power shifting models seem to be coming forward. Some examples:

    Common Vision – I had the pleasure of working briefly with Charlie as part of Common Vision( which engaged foundations in two regions in the development of a approach to structural change grant making that will be shared with the field later this year.

    Peace Development Fund – which continues to engage it community partners in grant making models which defy the power dynamic that inherently exists when money is on the table

    Kellogg Foundation – It’s America Healing Initiative

    Change seems to be in the air….