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Does Philanthropy Do The Public Good? (Insights)

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Does Philanthropy Do The Public Good? (Insights)

by David P. King, PhD

Public good
Social responsibility
The commons
Life together
Civic engagement
Love of neighbor   

While these ideas may not always be easy to define, we can grasp their meaning when we feel it or see them in action. In the reverse, we have an intuitive sense of when these ideals and practical virtues are missing from public life. Over the past year and a half, as we have become further polarized in fighting over politics or public health directives, some have positioned their response to the pandemic as a right to individual freedom or as a concern for the common good and love of neighbor. But too rarely are we addressing these debates as moral questions. Instead, we revert to party politics, talking heads on cable news, name calling, and viral social media posts. From my perspective, in working for the public good, those postures are not viable solutions. For those of us engaged in the work of faith and philanthropy, this is obvious. While the work across sectors and siloes has never been more difficult, it has also never been more necessary. 

At Lake Institute, we seek to foster a deeper understanding of the dynamic relationship between faith and giving through research, education, and public conversation. We regularly develop practical tools and resources as well as share best practices and case studies around the issues most directly facing religious and nonprofit leaders. We also seek to equip leaders, scholars, and the broader public to engage their traditions, values, and ethical frameworks in addressing the larger questions facing our communities today.  

The Growing Conversation

Our ethical frameworks, religious sensibilities, and moral imaginations have always shaped our traditions of giving and receiving. We can turn to the words in the sacred texts of the Bible, Torah, or Qur’an. We can think back to the first time we read Charles Dickins’ A Christmas Carol, or O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi or the more recent South Korean film Parasite.  

We can also reflect upon the many forms of generosity that we encounter. Some of us remember a foundation grant, a corporation’s social responsibility budget, or an individual donor’s major gift. Others would recall the change dropped into a Salvation Army red kettle or a Jewish child’s tzedakah box. Still, others might think about online crowdfunding for a local grassroots advocacy organization or the public-private partnership of a billionaire seeking to mass produce a Covid-19 vaccine. 

Most often, we have simply assumed giving is good, but there are inherent complications and contradictions when private interests meet public need. In recent years, the nature of philanthropy in democratic societies has become an increasingly central topic in the midst of growing inequality and debates over notions of the public good. Lake has hosted distinguished visitors such as Edgar Villanueva, Rob Reich, Brad Braxton, Starksy Wilson, and Aimée Laramore to consider these questions. We are excited to host David Brooks and Anne Snyder as the speakers for our upcoming Thomas H. Lake Lecture to consider these topics as well. More voices are raising questions and critically engaging philanthropy: Who makes up the public and who gets to make philanthropic decisions?  

Asking the Right Questions

At the same time, we have seen the increasing professionalization of philanthropy, public policy, and the nonprofit sector. Those who study this field have tended to assess tax codes, funding mechanisms, donor motivations, and evaluation metrics. In measuring the impact of philanthropy on the public good, the question has most often centered on effectiveness. The prior question, however, must be: effective at what? In short, how do we know when philanthropy does the public good? 

This is a question I believe religious communities are well equipped to engage. We know religious giving continues to remain the largest charitable subsector. We also know that religious nonprofits are vital to sustaining trust, building bridges, and providing services in communities on a local, national, and global scale. Yet, religious communities are vital to the conversation for another key reason. In order to address when philanthropy does the public good, we must first reflect on the moral nature of philanthropy and the pluralistic visions of what we mean by public good in the first place. These are the questions that religious and spiritual communities are well equipped to ask. While not immune from our own biases and limited field of vision, our faith traditions often provide us the practices and perspective to consider how best to care for both the neighbor and the stranger in our midst.   

Does Philanthropy Do the Public Good?

Beyond the particular ethics of individual givers, how have our understandings of giving been established and sustained by our social, moral, and cultural traditions? Most often the lines between public and private, local and global, or individual and collective action are blurred and contested. What if we were to step back and reflect upon how and why we give? To answer the question, “does Philanthropy do the Public Good?” My answer is yes. But the answer may be less important than the dialogue around the question: why and how. My hope is that through exploring the intersection of faith and giving, we can make space for building bridges, caring for our neighbors, and living peacefully together. 

DATE: August 24, 2021
TOPIC: Research and Scholarship
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Philanthropy
AUTHOR: David P. King