Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma, Part 3

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Simone Joyaux

“Small acts of resistance to authority, if persisted in, may lead to large social movements . . . ordinary people are capable of extraordinary acts of courage . . . those in power may confidently say ‘never’ to the possibility of change and may live to be embarrassed by those words . . .” So said Howard Zinn in his wonderful book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Zinn fought long and hard for justice—and we just lost him in January.

Resistance to those in power. Fighting for justice. Giving to social change. Progressive philanthropy. Another dimension of philanthropy.

And yes, this approach is difficult. Progressive philanthropy fights injustice and promotes social change. Social change philanthropy questions the status quo. It’s almost always hard going against the status quo. Why? Because people—and institutions and government—are threatened by change. The status quo is what we know. (Just think about President Obama and his campaign mantra for change. Now look what’s happening.)

Social change philanthropy questions and threatens the status quo. Social change intends to create social justice. And social justice may redistribute resources—and lots of other scary things. Because some people like their lives just fine and don’t want any change.

And what’s that all about? Privilege. Ah yes, privilege. People don’t want to talk about privilege because privilege is personal. But keep in mind: Some of your privilege and mine comes at the expense of others.

Without a fundamental awareness of privilege, it’s almost impossible to understand the politics of human relationships and the dynamics of society.

So let’s start at the beginning: Each person experiences life differently. Often a person’s experience produces some disadvantage, e.g., socioeconomic, religious, ethnicity, gender, and so forth.

But there’s another form of privilege, more important, advantage. Advantage—unearned, unrecognized, and invisible—is enormously powerful. Check out Peggy McIntosh’s great piece “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege.” This is posted all over the Internet. Read it. Think about it. Now start listing your invisible privilege. Then read Peggy’s newest writings, “White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths That Keep Racism in Place” and “White Privilege: An Account to Spend.”

Now, think about your own invisible privilege. Take a close look. Privilege is not a result of something a person has done. On the contrary, as Peggy notes, privilege is the result of “invisible systems conferring dominance on a particular group.” Then all those unearned privileges become the norm. And a culture’s socialization about norms produces hierarchies and power dynamics that are often unquestioned and accepted as reality.

This is tough stuff. It’s hard to examine one’s own privilege, and then question the righteousness of that privilege. It’s painful to recognize that one’s own privilege disadvantages others.

This is risky business, discussing privilege and power.

So let me start.

I’m a white, heterosexual, well-educated, affluent, woman. White, heterosexual, well educated and affluent: all privileges that give me rights and benefits in North America and lots of other places in the world. White, heterosexual, and well educated are unearned advantages. I was born white and heterosexual, and my parents paid for my education. Even my affluence—well it sure helped that I was white and well educated when I began working.

My one disadvantage, gender. It’s a disadvantage in every country in the world to be a woman. It’s an unearned privilege to be male.

So privilege leads us back to injustice. And injustice leads us to social change / progressive philanthropy. So now what?

Do you want more about Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma? Read Chapter 25 in my book Keep Your Donors. See the monograph on my website.nors.

  • Jara Dean-Coffey


    Thanks for stating so clearly the relationship between privelege, awareness and power. It can be a dangerous dialogue.

    I particularly appreciated the following: Privilege is not a result of something a person has done. …privilege is the result of

  • Candice De Los Reyes

    Very interesting and courageous piece. I think social change philanthropy should also be about comitting to making outcomes equitable for marginalized communities as well as providing equal funding.