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.