How sen­ti­men­tal­ity could un­der­mine the ef­fi­ciency of phi­lan­thropy.

Ben­jamin Soskis says sen­ti­men­tal­ity is find­ing a way back into the cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis of giv­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @BenSoskis Ben­jamin Soskis is a re­search as­so­ciate at the Cen­ter on Non­prof­its and Phi­lan­thropy at the Ur­ban In­sti­tute and the co-ed­i­tor of HistPhil.

On June 16, in a move that shook the gro­cery in­dus­try, Ama­zon agreed to pur­chase Whole Foods for $13.7 bil­lion. Yet Just a day be­fore, Jeffj Be­zos, Ama­zon’s founder (and the owner of The Wash­ing­ton Post), made an an­nounce­ment that could prove an even greater dis­rup­tion to a dif­fer­ent sec­tor: phi­lan­thropy. Be­zos’s phil­an­thropic ac­tiv­ity has been sur­pris­ingly mod­est, at least rel­a­tive to his vast wealth; the Whole Foods rev­e­la­tion boosted his net worth and vaulted him into sec­ond place in Forbes’s rank­ings of the world’s bil­lion­aires.

But in a tweet, Be­zos hinted that he was re­assess­ing his “phi­lan­thropy strat­egy” and asked his more than 222,000 fol­low­ers for ad­vice on how to im­ple­ment it. His goal was par­tic­u­larly strik­ing, dif­fer­ent from the long-term in­vest­ments — in The Post and in Ama­zon, for in­stance — that had oc­cu­pied much of his time. For his giv­ing, he sought a “short term” fo­cus. “I want much of my phil­an­thropic ac­tiv­ity to be help­ing peo­ple in the here and now . . . at the in­ter­sec­tion of ur­gent need and last­ing im­pact,” he de­clared. Be­zos cited a home­less shel­ter in Seat­tle, Mary’s Place, to which Ama­zon re­cently granted rent-free space in one of its head­quar­ters build­ings, as an ex­am­ple.

For many within the phil­an­thropic sec­tor, which I study, this was crazy talk. Phi­lan­thropists are sup­posed to pur­sue “sys­tems change,” long-term im­pact and the ex­tir­pa­tion of root causes. Think, for in­stance, of Mark Zucker­berg and Priscilla Chan’s $3 bil­lion ef­fort to cure “all dis­ease in our chil­dren’s life­time.” As one phil­an­thropic con­sul­tant in­sisted in an on­line col­umn in Forbes, short-term giv­ing has never led to last­ing so­cial change, and Be­zos’s flawed strat­egy is based on a “long­ing for in­stant per­sonal grat­i­fi­ca­tion that clouds judg­ment.” Or as an­other Forbes writer ar­gued, “The prob­lem with the short-term per­spec­tive is that it po­si­tions phi­lan­thropy as char­ity rather than a mech­a­nism for shap­ing a more just, eq­ui­table world.”

For at least a mil­len­nium, char­ity — the ef­fort to re­lieve im­me­di­ate suf­fer­ing through alms­giv­ing or cor­po­real works of mercy — was un­der­stood to be the way to use ma­te­rial re­sources to do good in the world. Yet by the 16th cen­tury, as the ranks of the poor grew through­out Europe, many com­men­ta­tors from a ris­ing mer­can­tile elite be­gan to in­sist upon tra­di­tional char­ity’s in­ad­e­qua­cies. By the time mod­ern phi­lan­thropy emerged at the turn of the last cen­tury in the United States, with large-scale for­tunes chan­neled into pri­vate foun­da­tions, its cham­pi­ons de­clared its supre­mancy over char­ity.

Whereas char­ity was waste­ful and prompted by sen­ti­men­tal im­pulses, mod­ern phi­lan­thropy would be ef­fi­cient. Whereas char­ity tended to symp­toms, phi­lan­thropy would ad­dress root causes. Char­ity’s im­per­a­tives were re­li­gious, while phi­lan­thropy bor­rowed its logic from the lab­o­ra­tory and the board­room. Char­ity was parochial, while mod­ern phi­lan­thropy would turn its at­ten­tion to re­gional, na­tional and even global prob­lems. Char­ity might tem­po­rar­ily im­prove the con­di­tion of the poor, but phi­lan­thropy would abol­ish poverty it­self.

That cri­tique has kept much of its power in the present day. Many of the most so­phis­ti­cated an­a­lysts of con­tem­po­rary phi­lan­thropy main­tain that it must root its le­git­i­macy in a will­ing­ness to take risks and main­tain a long-term vi­sion; that is, it must dis­tin­guish it­self from char­ity, as well as from gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor.

But Be­zos’s tweet is one in­ti­ma­tion that char­ity might be mak­ing a come­back. This prob­a­bly won’t mean that home­less shel­ters around the na­tion will soon be flush with money. But it does sug­gest a mount­ing chal­lenge to phi­lan­thropy’s moral hege­mony by a pow­er­ful, al­ter­na­tive ethic.

One of the rea­sons for the pos­si­ble re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of char­ity is es­pe­cially para­dox­i­cal, given phi­lan­thropy’s tech­no­cratic pre­ten­sions. Over the past decade, as groups have be­come more so­phis­ti­cated at as­sess­ing the im­pact of their work, and as dig­i­tal pay­ment sys­tems have ad­vanced through­out the de­vel­op­ing world, a num­ber of care­fully de­signed field ex­per­i­ments have af­firmed the ef­fec­tive­ness of un­con­di­tional cash trans­fers to the poor. Such char­i­ta­ble trans­fers chal­lenge as­sump­tions, dat­ing back cen­turies, that im­pov­er­ished re­cip­i­ents will squan­der money given di­rectly to them. It turns out that the poor of­ten know much bet­ter than out­side ex­perts how to im­prove their own con­di­tion.

A cen­tury ago, char­ity’s “in­dis­crim­i­nate” na­ture was con­sid­ered one of its great­est li­a­bil­i­ties. Yet cash trans­fers are ef­fec­tive not be­cause they are rad­i­cal acts of sol­i­dar­ity but be­cause they ad­dress per­verse in­cen­tives in wel­fare sys­tems. And though re­search is not yet avail­able on the long-term ef­fects of di­rect cash trans­fers (the char­ity GiveDirectly has be­gun a 12-year ba­sic-in­come study in Kenya that should tell us more), we have enough ev­i­dence of pos­i­tive short-term re­sults — in­clud­ing in­creased school at­ten­dance, im­proved health mea­sures, and higher sav­ings and in­vest­ment — to sug­gest that they might sit “at the in­ter­sec­tion of ur­gent need and last­ing im­pact.” Both the for­mer U.N. sec­re­tary-gen­eral and the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee have called for shift­ing to­ward more cash trans­fers.

The ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of cash trans­fers as a hu­man­i­tar­ian in­stru­ment is linked to an­other rea­son be­hind char­ity’s resur­gence, one for which Be­zos and other In­ter­net moguls might har­bor a spe­cial affin­ity: the al­lure of dis­in­ter­me­di­a­tion. One of the at­trac­tions of di­rect cash trans­fers, and of the uni­ver­sal ba­sic-in­come schemes to which they are re­lated, is the way they by­pass the phil­an­thropic es­tab­lish­ment.

Rooted in Catholic the­ol­ogy, the tra­di­tional ethic of char­ity has placed as much em­pha­sis on the hu­man re­la­tion­ship es­tab­lished be­tween giver and re­ceiver as on the value of the gift it­self. Since the En­light­en­ment, de­fend­ers of phi­lan­thropy have dis­missed that par­tial­ity as sen­ti­men­tal and self­ish (of­ten with a dash of anti-Catholic sen­ti­ment thrown in). Char­ity’s apol­o­gists have re­sponded that while phi­lan­thropists might claim to love mankind, they of­ten don’t seem to show much love for man in par­tic­u­lar.

The so­cial-me­dia age has brought donors and re­cip­i­ents much closer to­gether, which is why crowd­fund­ing brought in more than $34 bil­lion in 2015, up from around $880 mil­lion in 2010. The growth of GoFundMe, spe­cial­iz­ing in vivid and im­me­di­ate ap­peals, sug­gests as much: The com­pany took five years to raise $1 bil­lion for cam­paigns on its site, nine months to raise the next $1 bil­lion and seven months to raise the next bil­lion, a spokes­woman said. Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, 68 per­cent of crowd­fund­ing users re­port “hav­ing con­trib­uted to a project to help an in­di­vid­ual fac­ing some sort of hard­ship or fi­nan­cial chal­lenge.” Nearly half the money GoFundMe has raised since its 2010 launch has gone to med­i­cal cam­paigns.

The des­per­a­tion be­hind such ef­forts sug­gests an­other rea­son for char­ity’s rise: in­creased so­cial dis­tress in the wake of re­ces­sion and gov­ern­men­tal re­trench­ment. Con­fronting those needs, lead­ers of the phil­an­thropic sec­tor face a predica­ment. Most re­ject the “vol­un­tarism fan­tasy” that main­tains that pri­vate giv­ing can sub­sti­tute for gov­ern­men­tal fund­ing. And they worry that chan­nel­ing money to ba­sic hu­man ser­vices might re­lieve pres­sure on politi­cians to spend on such pro­grams. Yet they can­not dis­re­gard the scale of the suf­fer­ing around them. In the midst of the Great Re­ces­sion, even as to­tal char­i­ta­ble giv­ing fell, do­na­tions to food banks spiked. In a 2010 sur­vey, 40 per­cent of foun­da­tions re­ported that they in­creased their fund­ing to “safety net ac­tiv­i­ties and vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions.” The founder of GoFundMe, Rob Solomon, has called his site a “dig­i­tal safety net,” which un­der­scores the need to catch those who fell through the fray­ing public one. “If the holes weren’t huge and gap­ing, GoFundMe wouldn’t need to ex­ist.”

Post-credit-cri­sis frus­tra­tion with West­ern cap­i­tal­ism points to a fi­nal rea­son be­hind char­ity’s pos­si­ble resur­gence. Tra­di­tional char­ity has long op­er­ated out­side the rules of the mar­ket­place. This is, in fact, one rea­son mod­ern crit­ics have dis­missed its min­is­tra­tions: They be­lieve it too of­ten en­cour­ages idle­ness. On the other hand, dur­ing the Gilded Age, phi­lan­thropy be­came associated with the con­tri­bu­tions of the fi­nan­cial elite and so was in­creas­ingly im­pli­cated in the eco­nomic sys­tems in which their wealth was pro­duced. Re­cently, the cou­pling has been con­se­crated with a ne­ol­o­gism: phi­lan­thro-cap­i­tal­ism, which de­scribes the be­lief, as the coin­ers of the term ex­plained, that “the rich can save the world” by chan­nel­ing mar­ket forces to­ward phil­an­thropic ends.

Given those as­so­ci­a­tions, char­ity can be cast in op­po­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. It is not sur­pris­ing that one of most pow­er­ful crit­ics of the “de­i­fied mar­ket,” Pope Fran­cis, is also one of our age’s most pas­sion­ate de­fend­ers of tra­di­tional char­ity. (In case you are won­der­ing whether the pope thinks you should give to pan­han­dlers, the an­swer is “al­ways” yes.)

This sug­gests a strik­ing ide­o­log­i­cal re­ver­sal. Char­ity, es­pe­cially as prac­ticed by its Catholic acolytes, could claim both con­ser­va­tive and rad­i­cal modes (see, for in­stance, the com­plex pol­i­tics of Dorothy Day). But it was of­ten un­der­stood by its crit­ics as fun­da­men­tally re­ac­tionary, op­posed to ef­forts at so­cial trans­for­ma­tion and rooted stub­bornly in the be­lief that “the poor ye al­ways have with you.”

Al­though it’s un­likely that Be­zos had them in mind when he is­sued his call for ad­vice on Twit­ter, char­ity’s rad­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are now com­ing to the fore. Premised on the prox­i­mate en­counter with hu­man suf­fer­ing, staked to the fun­da­men­tal dig­nity of those in need and hum­ble in the im­me­di­acy of its am­bi­tions, char­ity stands against the pow­er­ful forces of con­tem­po­rary life that feel dis­tant, hubris­tic, bu­reau­cratic and un­re­spon­sive. In that sense, char­ity, de­spite its lim­its — be­cause of its lim­its — can be dis­rup­tive.

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