July 27, 2013; New York Times


There is nothing new in the term “charitable industrial complex.” It’s been in use for at least a decade among organizers on the left, so Peter Buffett’s use of it should be no revelation, but…well, he is a Buffett, after all. And actually, some the challenges he mounts in the article are on the mark and worth hearing from many different mouths but his strokes are so broad that they are nothing short of flat-footed. In short, he says, unfettered capitalism is robbing the world with one hand, giving back pittances with the other, and then expecting to be thanked for it—not only thanked, but forgiven to be allowed to pillage another day. This is true, by the way. There may be nothing more grotesque in this world than a robber baron setting himself up as beneficent savior, and philanthropy has played host to a lot of this kind of behavior over the years. And nonprofits have often played along. NPQ published a piece by Joan Roelofs in 2006, entitled “The Third Sector as a Protective Layer for Capitalism,” and it was not a new thought then.

In this op-ed in the New York Times, Buffett references his own discovery of Philanthropic Colonialism, also not a new concept, along with the fact that such interventions have sometimes bizarre and horrific unintended consequences. He wrote, “I noticed that a donor had the urge to ‘save the day’ in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.”

Right—sometimes otherwise referred to as strategic philanthropy. But, he adds, because he is a Buffett, he often sits in philanthropic rooms where people who are creating world-class problems are claiming to be serious about solving them. (Inequality, for one.)

That’s also not a new notion, and I am with him on everything so far, but then he takes something of a turn, referring to growth in the nonprofit sector, which he says outpaces business and government sectors. “It’s a massive business,” he says “with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.” I am not sure what this last has to do with his argument. I would like to see more nonprofits and more small businesses active in our communities: food co-ops, theater projects, museums and poetry clubs, locally owned corner stores, and surf shops. But his point is not these kinds of entities, but the colonializing ones that impose solutions on communities whose problems they may have had a hand in causing.

What Peter Buffett really focuses on is “conscience laundering,” which allows the “existing structure of inequality” to remain firmly in place. That conscience laundering, he implies, comes complete with a kind of mass brainwashing that papers over structural injustices and abuses of people and environment. He ends by saying, “Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market…(but) as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”

Again, Peter Buffett is mostly right, but we are not right if we act like this is a new notion or if we accept that all nonprofits are somehow complicit in giving capitalism a pass in return for a grant. (Though, frankly, our sector has been structurally dependent, and therefore at risk for keeping silent when we should be loud—for acting like addressing the symptoms of injustice is the same as challenging injustice). Until we see that wealth gap start to close, women making as much as men, and the health indicators in communities of color begin to move decisively to the good nationwide…until our jails and prisons start to empty out and people with mental illness are not incarcerated for their illness on the street or in jails or prisons…we should not go home at the end of any day feeling self-satisfied. I believe that Buffett is attempting to say that this sector has been bought off, and indeed that is somewhat, though not as completely as he claims, the case.—Ruth McCambridge