Philanthropy for the 96% — Part I

Wade Rathke Posted by Wade Rathke.

Wade Rathke is the founder of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – a nationwide activist network engaged in community organizing.


Philanthropy for the 96% — Part I

Missoula     Giving USA recently issued a report on philanthropic giving accompanied by numerous back pats that giving is once again up and has finally exceeded the pre-recession levels. This giving aggregates individuals, foundations, and corporations. No doubt the absolute sum ponied up by the 1% is a pile of this, but 72% of the giving was by individuals, and historically it is well documented that the rich give a smaller percentage to charity than those with considerably less.

Sadly, as a New York Times columnist, Ron Lieber, noted, the darkest cloud in what was intended to be a feel-good press release on the increased generosity of the American people is in the area of international giving, where people are inarguably poorer and in more desperate need. Such giving was down by 3% and of the $358 billion given, only 4% when to international work and projects. The Princeton philosopher, Paul Singer, was quoted as disappointed since he has argued “the case that individuals have a moral obligation to do much more for people in faraway places” and has challenged us all to “tilt our charitable allocations heavily toward the global and less toward the local.”

Directing ACORN International and working in many of these areas, I know too well how true this can be. For months an item will come and go on my “to do” list about sending out an e-blast or some kind of appeal for support, but the marginal success of such efforts has pushed it off the list for several years running. So why is this? What is this antipathy or inability to empathize globally all about? Is it something people around the world have done to make our grips tighten on our dollars or is it something undone on the part of those working globally?

Most compellingly, and most understandably I think, it is natural that people want to give to outfits they can see and where they might even personally benefit, even if indirectly, through community favor, praise, or participation, and given the limited language facility and the expense and narrow structure of most people’s travel in the warp of industrial tourism, malls, cruises, and manufactured authenticity, how can anyone be surprised at the limited range of international philanthropy. I also think many Americans, partially because of the steady roar from the rightwing, believe they have already given through their tax dollars and foreign aid, despite the facts on how little we really give as a percentage of our budget and how limited the gifts really are in terms of eligible countries and in ways that might be constructed as truly philanthropic nationally as opposed to in our national, ideological or commercial interests. None of that benefits the poorest populations of the world or perhaps more importantly the poorest populations of countries that are now ranked as “middle income” even though continuing to contain shocking levels of deprivation for hundreds of millions.

We also see huge philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and many others give to the big ticket world health problems like malaria, AIDS, and so forth, rather than overall prevention or poverty alleviation, which is confusing to smaller donors wanting to make a difference and maintain a voice. The frequent embrace of disaster philanthropy by too many of the world’s largest charities is also confounding, like the scandals at the Red Cross and recent reports on how few houses were built compared to promises in places like Haiti. Many of the world’s largest NGOs are also publicly funded sending a message once again that failure means a waste of tax money rather than an urgent call for more personal donations.

The largest gifts internationally continue to be remittances from migrant workers and immigrant families back to their home countries, communities, and relatives, yet, tragically, there are few policy initiatives helping magnify such lifeline contributions that exceed the $16 billion given internationally as charity, but do not even count as philanthropy in such totals or even as tax deductions, allowing these small, regular contributions and their givers to be prey for financial institutions and money transfer organizations rather than honored guests at any community’s annual charity ball.