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How philanthropy can recover its lost soul

by
18 September 2020

In his new book that traces the history of giving, Paul Vallely explores the ethical impetus of donors

Alamy

PATTY STONESIFER looked out of the window and wondered. She had been a high-flyer all her life. Before the age of 40, she had risen to become the highest-ranking woman at Microsoft. Already she had run the software giant’s entire operation in Canada.

Then she had revamped the whole organisation’s product-support and consumer-products divisions before becoming vice-president of its $800-million interactive media division, where she oversaw its entertainment, news, and information products.

She had earned enough that she would never have to work for money again. So much so that she did not need to draw a salary when she became the first chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as it set out to eradicate polio, combat malaria, and treat AIDS. Stonesifer set its strategic priorities, monitored results, and managed relationships with key partners.

She helped build the foundation into the world’s largest philanthropy, with a budget bigger than the gross domestic product of 70 per cent of the world’s nations. But every night she would look out of the window of the Gates Foundation offices on McPherson Square in Washington, DC, and see a white van pull up by a nearby city park.

Every night, it gave out hot food to those who were homeless and hungry in the capital city of the world’s richest nation. The van arrived without fail, every day, 365 days a year. It came from an organisation named Martha’s Table.

Stonesifer understood the reference. In the Christian Gospels, Martha is the woman who remains in the kitchen preparing the food while her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening to him teach.

Stonesifer had heard the story many times at the church she attended as a child in Indianapolis, where she grew up in a big Catholic family. “The No. 1 lesson you learn, being sixth out of nine children, is: It’s not about you,” she told Maureen O’Dowd, from he New York Times.

“Our family didn’t talk about volunteerism. It was just baked in. We went down and put the new missals in the church pews, and we volunteered at the Sunday soup kitchen, and we went with my dad to pick up the deaf children for church. We had foster children a significant part of the time that I was growing up.”

The Stonesifer family set up a scheme to ensure that every child in their locality went home from the maternity hospital with a cot, in a move to reduce infant deaths. Now, in Washington, Stonesifer and her husband began to make donations to Martha’s Table to help support the work of its local volunteers. Then one day, in a newsletter the little charity sent out to its donors, she saw that the mobile foodbank was advertising for a CEO.

She applied and got the job. The world of philanthropy was stunned. “Having Stonesifer come run a small local charity,” observed the Washington Post, was like having the head of General Electric “showing up to manage the corner appliance store”.

But watching the van provide hot food to the homeless who congregated in that park had stirred memories for Stonesifer of the service she and her family had given “close to the front lines”. She wanted, she told O’Dowd, “to go beyond white papers and PowerPoint presentations and get my boots dirty”.

She wanted “to learn what it takes to change one child’s experience from a child born in poverty to a child that’s president of something”. Her move raises a far wider question. What was it that she found lacking in the model of Strategic Philanthropy? The answer is to be found in what I am calling Reciprocal Philanthropy.

We live in a culture that encourages us to think about the external side of our natures rather than our inner selves, declares the conservative intellectual David Brooks in his book The Road to Character. Brooks takes a variety of historical figures — from St Augustine, through Samuel Johnson and George Eliot, to Dwight Eisenhower.

All of them, in very different ways, he argues, reconciled their external and internal natures. Brooks, who was raised in a secular Jewish family and describes philanthropy as an atheist, goes on to draw a distinction between what he calls résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The former are the qualities you list on your CV: the skills that you bring to the job market.

Eulogy virtues, by contrast, are the qualities you would hope people might mention at your funeral — kindness, honesty, compassion, courage, loyalty, integrity. They are the qualities we bring to the relationships we form in life. True fulfilment, he concludes, is to be found in the counter-intuitive truth that to fulfil ourselves we must learn to forget ourselves.

 

PHILANTHROPY also has two sides to its personality. Strategic Philanthropy is most embodied today in philanthrocapitalism. But, over the centuries, it has had various other names: five-per-cent philanthropy, scientific philanthropy, muscular philanthropy, judicious philanthropy, systematic philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, entrepreneurial philanthropy, smart philanthropy, venture philanthropy, hedge-fund philanthropy, managerial philanthropy, catalytic philanthropy, hacker philanthropy, and effective philanthropy.

All of these essentially believed in harnessing market forces toward philanthropic ends. They are results-oriented. Their drive is undeniable. But their focus is questionable. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive — who, in 2015, to mark the birth of his first child, pledged the largest charitable gift in history: 99 per cent of his Facebook shares, then worth $45 billion — once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa”.

At Facebook, “relevance” is virtually the sole criterion that determines what users see. “Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy,” Eli Pariser wrote in the New York Times. “But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution.”

The other side of philanthropy is what I call Reciprocal Philanthropy. It began in the time of Aristotle, when philanthropy was seen primarily as a device to strengthen social relationships. But, as we have seen, it was most decisively developed through the revolutionary rise of religions which rejected many gods in favour of a single God.

That changed our understanding of human nature. A new philanthropy flowed from that shift. Jewish, early Christian, and Muslim teachings all brought the understanding that the act of giving creates a three-way relationship between the giver, the receiver, and the society in which they both live.

It was embodied in a millennium of Catholic Christendom. After the Reformation, it resurfaced repeatedly in various forms: in Enlightenment activist philanthropy, feminine philanthropy, Utopian socialist philanthropy, Quaker philanthropy, George Cadbury’s seminal philanthropy, and Bono’s fusion philanthropy.

All these are forms of Reciprocal Philanthropy. They all stand in opposition to what Jonathan Sacks calls “our new secular mythology”: the fallacy “that life is made of unfettered individual choices through which we negotiate our private paths to happiness”. Instead, they all share the insight that philanthropy, at its best, is rooted in relationship, mutuality, and partnership.

Reciprocal Philanthropy is philanthropy with a human face. It is focused on people rather than product. It is process-driven rather than results-oriented. It comes from the heart as much as the head.

 

GIVEN this tradition — which was seen by many to have ended when the Catholic worldview was challenged at the Reformation — it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the most prominent modern reaffirmations of the importance of mutuality in philanthropy have come from recent popes.

Pope John Paul II’s writings speak of mutuality as “solidarity”. This, he insists, is “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes” of others. Rather, it is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good . . . because we are all really responsible for all”.

Pope Benedict XVI, in a 2005 encyclical entitled Deus caritas est (God is love), reiterates that giving to the needy is an indispensable element of the Christian life. He rejects the leftist view that charity has been replaced by justice in the journey towards a fairer society.

Almsgiving, Benedict concedes, can be just “a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights”.

But it can be more than that. “Love — caritas — will always prove necessary, even in the most just society,” Benedict writes. No society can be made so just that it eliminates the need for love. “There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness,” he writes; so there will always be situations where “love of neighbour” is indispensable.

The bureaucracy of the state is no substitute for “loving personal concern”. The idea that justice will one day render charity superfluous is rooted in a false materialist view of what it is to be human.

Benedict then goes on specifically to praise philanthropy, but adds that the giver needs to be “personally present” in their gift. Only a gift endowed with love can cultivate humility in the giver and protect the dignity of the receiver.

Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, goes further. In his first significant teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he reasserts these long-standing principles of mutuality and partnership, writing: “This why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us.” The poor know much better than outside experts how to improve their own condition.

Charitable activity, Francis suggests, must assert human values in the face of a market economy which has become an “economy of exclusion and inequality”.

Philanthropy, for these popes, should be a humanising force in which the giver acknowledges the full humanity of the recipient in a way that neither the impersonal bureaucracy of the state nor the unforgiving efficiency of the market can do.

When giving to a beggar, Pope Francis says, “it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins” without even looking at the person. “Gesture is important . . . looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian. . . Charity is not about offloading one’s own sense of guilt, but it is touching, looking at our inner poverty. . .”

Central to all these expressions of Reciprocal Philanthropy is the understanding that every gift should bind the donor and recipient together in a relationship which also involves the whole of the community.

 

Listen to an interview with Paul Vallely on this week’s edition of the Church Times Podcast or watch it on our YouTube channel. His book, Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg (Books, 11 September), is published by Bloomsbury at £30 (Church Times Bookshop special price £25); 978-1-4729-2012-6.

 

‘The idea that some people are undeserving goes deep’

An interview with Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams

Paul Vallely: A recent philosopher of philanthropy, Rob Reich, a political scientist from Stanford University, has suggested that governments should vary the tax relief on charitable gifts to encourage philanthropists to give to soup kitchens rather than donkey sanctuaries. Is it the job of the state to do that?

Rowan Williams: I hope not. That would create an instant hard hierarchy of need. And while, of course, there are hierarchies of need, we need to discover them for ourselves. I think that’s giving the state a dangerously high level of discretion. I quite see that, say, a massively well-resourced independent school which has charitable status poses a bit of a problem.

But I think the danger is greater if you start having political debates about the acceptable limits of charity. This is eggshell territory, isn’t it? But when it comes to letting the state determine what is an acceptable use of my resources, I suddenly get a bit conservative.

The more the state takes on a role of moral scrutiny, the more I worry. The state is there to secure justice and law, equality before the law, and defence. That’s the business of the state. If the state then sets out to make us better people by lots of direct intervention, I think the state needs reining in.

I remember in church debates people saying: “Well, the state should make the Church do the right thing.” I just want to say “Whoa” when people are ambitious for the state to push in that way. It’s an immense act of blind faith in the state — and the history of the past hundred years ought to tell us that a hyper-activist state with lots of moral convictions is pretty bad for everybody.

 

So, where does that leave us on the question of whether it is right for people to discriminate between the so-called “deserving” and “undeserving” poor? It is nascent in the Middle Ages, but it gets big in the Elizabethan Poor Law and even bigger in Victorian philanthropy. And it’s still around today.

It certainly is. Yes, it’s there a bit in the Middle Ages, but, on the whole, it becomes an issue when you’ve got what some people call “an underclass” emerging — not just the poor, but what are seen as disruptive elements of it. So then charity is derailed by concerns about public security.

Hence, all these Elizabethan enactments about vagabondage. The upheavals of the Tudor period had put a lot of people on the roads, and the Elizabethan Poor Law has a great deal to do with protecting settled communities against sturdy rogues. They’re a threat to public order.

So the “undeserving poor” start out probably as a problem for public order. But, increasingly, this is moralised. Then the “undeserving poor” are the feckless, the sexually immoral, the people who don’t work, or won’t work — and who aren’t grateful.

 

You see that in the Victorian idea of the moral reform of the poor. But you still see it today in television programmes like Benefits Street.

Absolutely, yes. We are hungry for stories about the “undeserving poor” because it lets us off the hook. It says: “Phew. They’re not really victims after all; so I can relax.”

 

So we don’t have to give them any money, and we don’t have to feel bad about it.

That’s right. We don’t have to worry about “them”. The problem is that this leaves the definition entirely on my side. You don’t listen to people’s own account of themselves. One of the things I found quite moving in Dickens is how good he is with the “undeserving poor”.

In Bleak House, and some of the other great novels, you can see Dickens recognising the “undeserving poor” and letting their voices come through. You see his own deep scepticism about some kinds of organised charity.

I would give him a lot of credit for just letting that voice through, the people who, when they’re visited by the domineering charitable woman or man, will basically say, “Bugger off.”

Most readers of Dickens, I think, raise a cheer at that. But the idea that some people are “undeserving” goes very deep. And it persists.

 

Yet to look at the other side of the argument, the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides says that the highest level of giving is to lift people out of the situation where they need charity at all. You give them work which gets them out of a dependent frame of mind. That’s a way of dealing with the “undeserving poor” which is positive.

I think so. It’s back to this question of dependence. Often the “deserving poor” are the people who you recognise as reaching a certain standard of acceptable effort and who are appropriately grateful. You’re creating a client, a reliable client.

The hard work is building up a relationship which undermines dependency by allowing people some liberty of self-definition. It’s a hard call sometimes, but I’m with Maimonides all the way. But that means understanding why somebody can’t or won’t work.

Why some people get stuck in cycles of self-destructive behaviour — whether through addiction, or unplanned pregnancy, or whatever. Why do they get stuck in that? Finding that out is the proper business of philanthropy.

 

‘I really liked the idea of giving up’

An interview with Jonathan Ruffer, one of London’s wealthiest financiers, until he gave away £320 million, and shot to the top of the 2019 Sunday Times Giving List. He was fourth in 2020

Barry PellsJonathan Ruffer

In 2010, you went on a retreat to St Beuno’s: the Jesuit spirituality centre in North Wales. When you came back you decided that you needed to begin working with the poor. Did you have some moment of epiphany?

It was a silent retreat, but you’re expected to talk to your spiritual director for 45 minutes in the morning. Then there was eucharist in the afternoon. On the first evening, they announced that two members of the community were ill. Father Joseph, who had a heart attack, and had been taken off to hospital, and Maria, in the kitchens, who had had a funny turn and had also been taken off to hospital.

On the following night, we had a long report on how Father Joseph was getting on, and nothing at all on Maria. I said to the spiritual director the next day, “What happened with Maria?” He had no idea really. She just worked in the kitchen.

It was like she didn’t matter very much. I remember being in the chapel and really angry, saying “Lord, who will fight for a little person?”

 

That’s a dangerous question to ask. Because there’s only one answer.

Yes. That was the moment that I knew I was done for.

 

So what did you conclude from that?

I equated it with giving up this business. I thought I was being called to work in community centres and that kind of thing. And I really liked the idea of giving up the alpha-male parts of my life. I had a vivid sense of calling to do this.

 

Yet here you are, in the City still . . .

When I first came back from Beuno’s, I said to my successor: “Will you take over in two years’ time?” I had the idea that I’d do something like the Auckland Project one day a week, and then, after two years, give up the world of finance and go full-time there. [The Auckland Project is Ruffer’s massive £160-million regeneration project designed to rejuvenate a region of Co. Durham hard hit by the closure of traditional industries such as mining.]

I’m in a really good place now psychologically and spiritually, which I could never have been if I hadn’t made the decision to give this up full-time. I’m here three days a week, and in Auckland the other two and at the weekend. I live a piston-rod existence; this is where I earn it, and that’s where I spend it. That’s how it works.

 

Do they feel like compartments of your life or do they feel integrated?

They’re integrated. They’re just absolutely integrated.

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