A mural of a black and white monkey wearing a fez, with a chain around his neck. The monkey is looking away with a sad look.
Image credit: Photo by Ogulcan Ercal on Unsplash

The values attributed to success under capitalism are not the same values that lead to equity and sustainability for society. The point should be obvious, but it is important to state it clearly. Capitalism values self-interest, competition, private property, and the accumulation of wealth (hoarding) for the individual over community and collective wellbeing. 

To build a more just society, it is imperative that we embrace flexibility in our thinking and adopt new values. Reparations and wealth redistribution are necessary but not sufficient to pave a new way forward. Building a sustainable future requires leaving behind some of the extractive tools that create inequality in the first place. This means there is a need to revamp society’s understanding of success away from its current obsession with monetary profit, prioritize the needs of the most marginalized rather than privileging those already at the top, and center the voices of those closest to the problems we as a people need to solve.

Below we offer three principles that we believe can help move our culture away from extractive capitalism.Building a sustainable future requires leaving behind some of the extractive tools that create inequality in the first place.

Embrace Reparative Philanthropy as an Act of Healing and Repair

Capitalism creates clear class and social distinctions in a society where success is measured by the accumulation of material wealth. It builds and thrives on historically inherited inequities by upholding individual private interests. 

The working class—by which we mean the 90 percent of us who rely on wage income for sustenance—must submit to capitalism’s rules to survive. This economy is supported by a false narrative that success is the result of personal responsibility and hard work.

Can foundations escape [the extractive capitalist] box? Possibly. But only if…foundations embrace community leaders and listen to their advice.Our culture tells us that those who fail to accumulate sufficient resources do so because of a lack of willpower and motivation, not because of systemic inequalities and broad cultural failings. Consequently, poor people are seen as less deserving of trust and are misleadingly cast as reluctant participants in their own self-determination. Embracing reparative philanthropy goes against this conditioning, as it leads with a principle of respect for people as full human beings—not commodities.  

Philanthropy, of course, is rooted in capitalism. After all, business earnings are the source of nearly all foundation wealth. Traditional philanthropic practices under capitalism typically reward people and organizations working on issues that are important to the foundation or individual donor in a manner that the funder can support. 

Can foundations escape this box? Possibly. But only if the nature of giving is turned upside down, where foundations embrace community leaders and listen to their advice by intentionally embracing a philanthropy of healing and repair. This requires addressing the root causes of societal problems and acting to address those causes, with actual giving guided by movement leaders. We cannot expect capitalism, the system responsible for many societal ills, to use its rules to solve them. 

Support Self-Determination

There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” The story of capitalism is generally told by those with resources and class privilege, and thus centers on their needs and demands.

For philanthropic efforts to succeed, those who live at the margins should have the most say. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ceasar McDowell has persuasively argued, designing from the margins offers “a better opportunity to find solutions further down the road that are going to work for a broader set of people.” 

Rather than steering community change based solely on their resources, wealthy people and philanthropic institutions should support the community’s self-determination to reimagine and design how it thrives. This work may require multiple iterations and pivots—just like everything else that has been successful. It is not up to any benefactor to dictate or determine how this happens. 

Our “philanthropic success” or “impact” should be measured by the conditions changed to support repair and healing.

Sharing Means Survival

Ultimately, philanthropy should be replaced with the redistribution of resources. Our “philanthropic success” or “impact” should be measured by the conditions changed to support repair and healing—both for communities devastated by extractive capitalism and those who’ve hoarded money and resources. 

Repair, as explored in NPQ, brings far more people into the journey. It breaks down the walls of us versus them. It centers on acknowledging the harm to people and communities that have persisted for generations. It creates the conditions for accountability for those harms. It gives us an opportunity to thrive in shared spaces. It replaces scarcity with abundance. 

What good is wealth hoarding if every space and every place is made desolate by continued capitalist extraction? There are only so many islands one can travel to for extravagant and exclusive experiences. 

Class segregation in the United States is often unacknowledged, but it’s as stark—or at times even starker—than racial segregation. A philanthropy of repair and healing also invites the wealthy to come out of their isolation and become full participants in the community. By returning the resources that have been extracted, it becomes possible for all of us to thrive, celebrate, laugh, dance, live out loud, and love in public.