I think we may have made a mistake. We being people who have worked in non-profits over the last decade or so. The mistake is not having pushed back. Specifically, we have not pushed back against the rising tide of measurable outcomes on performance dashboards. And I get that no one can hold back the ocean, but we have not even substantially challenged the idea that donations to charity are just another transaction like any other financial business. We have, in fact, played into that notion by asking people to “invest” in our “work” rather than give to a person in need.
As a result, we’ve sold out the voice of the people we serve. We’ve spread the message that a transaction with us absolves whatever sin is accrued from all the other financial transactions a person or a corporation makes. But as a recent post on Al Jazeera points out, charity is no substitute for justice. (We’ll leave for another time a discussion of why the most provocative reporting in America is coming from Al Jazeera.) There is quite a bit to unpack in this article, but I’d like to address a basic premise on which it is built: that charity is an exchange of money for a fix of serotonin.
It has become increasingly hard to imagine that there are people who give not because of what they want but because of who they are. These people are called philanthropists. That’s a mash-up of the Greek words “philos” or love, and “anthropos” or people. Philathropists put their love of people before money. Sure, we celebrate the philanthropists with a lot of money who put their love of people first, but it doesn’t take a bunch of money to be a philanthropist. It does take realizing that we are most human when we share, without restrictions, the things we have with people we love.
Love does not deny justice. To love someone includes treating them with justice and working with them for justice. But love also includes making gifts, perhaps gifts that mean we can do less of what we want to do. That’s a suggestion that sounds foolish to our ears in a time when self-determination is paramount. Why would anyone give up a bit of their own freedom (or money) for someone else? Sure, maybe for a family member or a good friend. Someone they know, but not some stranger.
And there is the rub. When we treat charity as a transaction, the recipient stays a stranger. We can maintain the illusion that she or he is different from us. We don’t have to face the reality that we too are people and will also be in need of help one day. They act weird and talk funny and smell bad and we don’t want them in our places. We don’t want to know in how many ways they are us and we are them. And we in the non-profit world have readily generated performance measurements and returns on investment that provide a rood screen between the donor and the unwashed masses. In doing so, we have not only presented a barrier to the disenfranchised who seek justice, we have put fetter on the charitable person who might become a philanthropist.