Philanthrocapitalism: old myths, new realities

Published on openDemocracy, by Michael Edwards, Nov. 15, 2008.

Michael Edwards’s book on business-led philanthropy, “Just Another Emperor?”, launched a vigorous public debate across the non-profit sector and beyond. Now, in an environment transformed by the global financial crisis, he reviews the arguments the book provoked, responds to critics, and reaffirms the importance of a “civil-society-strong” perspective in face of “a tsunami of pro-business thinking”.

… Who will stand for “civil society strong”?

The second set of criticisms concerned my somewhat romantic treatment of civil society, social movements, and traditional philanthropy (which, with one or two exceptions, has never funded radical mass-based citizen action). Buzz Schmidt of GuideStar International, for example, agreed that “pressures to commercialize social activity erode the integrity of non-profit initiative” but blamed the “standard operating practices of private foundations” rather than the specifics of philanthrocapitalism for this problem.

For Schmidt and others, the villain in this piece is the whole of institutional philanthropy, which is ripe for root-and-branch reform (and after working in it for the last nine years, I happen to agree). Some of the most exciting comments about Just Another Emperor? came from those who advocated completely different systems for funding social change, variously described as “citizen philanthropy” (”user-friendly and “user-generated”), “social justice philanthropy”, and “transformational philanthropy” – ideas that begin to get at the unequal power dynamics and accountability deficits that lie at the heart of conventional foundation decision-making and governance.

If philanthropy is “private funding in the public interest”, it is not unreasonable to insist that the “public” has some say in defining how its “interest” is identified and addressed. Democratising philanthropic foundations may be a headline issue in the next ten years, especially because philanthrocapitalism celebrates the very public concentration of wealth, celebrity and status.

Nevertheless, philanthrocapitalism has some distinctive attributes that continue to concern me as a civil-society enthusiast. Bruce Sievers, an early and insightful critic of philanthrocapitalism before it was baptised, gently chided me for compressing the huge diversity of civil society into something that could be targeted at specific social outcomes. Fair enough, but this observation doesn’t change the fact that civil society is crucial for social transformation, nor that philanthrocapitalism may erode the very characteristics (like diversity and independence) which make civil society an important engine of social and political change …

… Conclusion:

Just Another Emperor? was designed to make space for more balanced and sophisticated positions like these, push back against the wilder claims of philanthrocapitalism, and encourage people to find their voice and not simply swallow hard in the face of the tsunami of pro-business thinking that was heading in their direction.

Nine months on, the ground under our feet is moving. In this new economic, political, and intellectual environment, the “emperor” has retained much of his clothing but has lost his crown, no longer the sole figure in a triumphal procession towards the permanent supremacy of the market. Those of us lining the streets must keep a careful watch on what happens next, and be prepared to enter the fray if we see Napoleonic tendencies returning. All in all, the provocations of Just Another Emperor? have done their job and done it well. Bring on Josephine. Je ne regrette rien. (full text).

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