Examining the equity implications of culture of philanthropy

Written by Vu Le

Over the past several years, we’ve been hearing the term “culture of philanthropy” a lot. According to the 2013 report Underdeveloped, by Haas Jr. Fund and CompassPoint, culture of philanthropy incorporates these key elements:

“Most people in the organization (across positions) act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building. Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving. Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization. Organizational systems are established to support donors. The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.”

Haas also provides a great list of what a culture of philanthropy looks like, in this follow-up report, “Beyond Fundraising: What Does It Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?”

It’s been a few years now, and “culture of philanthropy” has worked its way into our lexicon. People use the term all the time, often latching on to the first element mentioned above, the one where fundraising is not just the purview of fundraisers, but that everyone participates in fundraising.

This embrace of culture of philanthropy can’t possibly be bad, right? But as I talk to colleagues, I am hearing increasing skepticism and concern at this concept. Nell Edgington, for example, raises alarms about our sector’s tendency to focus on individual organizations’ fundraising tactics while continuing to ignore sector-wide issues.

My main issue with the concept of culture of philanthropy is the lack of equity analysis. This has been the common challenge with so many concepts that have been advanced in our field: Collective impact, strategic philanthropy, logic models, etc. Because of this lack of equity analysis, we often take things as “best practices,” and over time, it can cause a lot of harm to our work. Collective impact, for instance, at least in Seattle, where I am located, often resulted in a bunch of funders removing funding from grassroots marginalized-communities-led organizations and consolidating funding to grant to white-led, gatekeepy backbone organizations (See “Why communities of color are getting frustrated with Collective Impact”).

My colleague Gloris Estrella and I were discussing culture of philanthropy, how white-centric is, and how it may be dismissing philanthropy as practiced by marginalized communities. “Many BIPOC cultures have philanthropic values embedded in them since the beginning of time. Taking care of the collective, the community, is central to how folks show up in the world. Organizing meals for families with newborns or folks experiencing a death in the family, etc.”

This above point made by Gloris crystalizes what has been bothering me and other colleagues of color about the culture of philanthropy. Philanthropy is a deeply ingrained value of many marginalized communities. But it may look different than how our white-dominant sector thinks about philanthropy. In many marginalized communities, there have always been community support for deaths, births, weddings, and other life events. Women in villages often create lending circles. Neighbors look out for one another’s children. Relatives live with and are often taken care of in their old age by the younger generations. These things would truly fall into this sphere of “philanthropy” if we use the definition of “the love of humanity.”

Updated to add: It’s not that white communities don’t do mutual aid or neighbors don’t look out for one another (they do), but these things have not really been seen as “philanthropy.” Philanthropy, over time and as envisioned by white-dominant culture, is primarily about people with more wealth helping out those with less wealth, and being treated with deference and gratitude for doing so.

The culture of philanthropy, the way our sector currently defines and implements it, then is really about everyone being involved in fundraising strategies that focus on building relationships with donors in order to raise as much money as possible. That’s not philanthropy; that’s fundraising. Philanthropy and fundraising are two separate things. They may be deeply interrelated, but they’re not the same.

That may be one of the reasons why some colleagues of color, as well as white allies, are frustrated with the concept of culture of philanthropy. Of course, people are not monolithic, and my experience talking to colleagues provides only a small sample size of the sector. Still, here are questions we need to ponder before we further advance the idea of culture of philanthropy the way it is currently understood and implemented:

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.