Generosity is no substitute for justice

Before I became the Book Doula, I spent about a decade working as a fundraiser– a Development Director– for nonprofits, with my final four years spent raising money for a foundation that grappled with, and attempted to solve, the dysfunctional dynamics in philanthropy. Taped at the top of my screen was the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

These days I meet a lot of eager whippersnappers from places like Make Sense, (ex)Sandbox, Impact Hub, etc., who are convinced that social entrepreneurship and social innovation is the best of all worlds. They won’t, in the words of a young man who once did an informational interview with me, have to eat beans from a can their whole lives (this was the fear that kept him from the stuff he was most passionate about via a nonprofit); they can make money and still give mosquito nets or solar lamps to needy Africans. Win win.

I don’t want to be down on them. I applaud everyone who uses their precious life force to diminish suffering, and to bring more dignity, justice and opportunity to more people.

But we could use more nuanced conversations about social innovation, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, etc. We really could.

Which is why I was so grateful to see Anand Giridharadas’ speech to the Aspen Institute.

We’re living in an age in which the assumptions and values of business are more influential than they ought to be. Our culture has turned businessmen and -women into philosophers, revolutionaries, social activists, saviors of the poor. We are at risk of forgetting other languages of human progress: of morality, of democracy, of solidarity, of decency, of justice.

….when the winners of our age answer the problem of inequality and injustice, all too often they answer it within the logic and frameworks of business and markets. We talk a lot about giving back, profit-sharing, win-wins, social-impact investing, triple bottom lines (which, by the way, are something my four-month-old son has).

Sometimes I wonder whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.

Because when you give back, when you have a side foundation, a side CSR project, a side social-impact fund, you gain an exemption from more rigorous scrutiny. You helped 100 poor kids in the ghetto learn how to code. The indulgence spares you from questions about the larger systems and structures you sustain that benefit you and punish others: weak banking regulations and labor laws, zoning rules that happen to keep the poor far from your neighborhood, porous safety nets, the enduring and unrepaired legacies of slavery and racial supremacy and caste systems.

These systems and structures have victims, and we here are at risk, I think, of confusing generosity toward those victims with justice for those victims. For generosity is a win-win, but justice often is not. The winners of our age don’t enjoy the idea that some of them might actually have to lose, to sacrifice, for justice to be done. In Aspen you don’t hear a lot of ideas involving the privileged and powerful actually being in the wrong, and needing to surrender their status and position for the sake of justice.

We talk a lot here about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less.

Thanks and kudos, Anand.


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