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Social justice and philanthropy – unlikely bedfellows?

March 5, 2013

conferenceOn 1st March we spoke at the Social Justice Philanthropy Conference in London. Stephen Pittam of the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace kicked off. He talked about social justice philanthropy coming about as a response to the neoliberal agenda and outlined some key themes such as addressing root causes and structural injustices and strengthening marginalised communities to speak for themselves. A good start. But this was swiftly followed by Andrew Barnett of Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation who argued that the ‘mire of lofty ideals’ often resulted in less effective grant-making (read speech in full). It’s hard to understand why someone concerned with social justice would want to perpetuate society’s inequalities through their own processes. He went on to note we should work more with the private sector and bridge the gap between the for-profit and non-profit worlds.

The discussion then went off on a worrying tangent about Corporate Social Responsibility. Apparently corporations are beginning to understand that making unpopular decisions behind closed doors is not being tolerated any longer, especially when the public finds out. Is fear of being found out an indication of ethics? A suggestion was made that perhaps bankers should start up their own charitable funds, each putting in a little of their inflated salaries, presumably to improve public relations.

It’s not just social justice that has different interpretations. Many people throughout the day talked about addressing root causes. One person talked about the importance of ‘teaching a man to fish’, while another talked of giving fishing nets instead of fish. But is this addressing the real root cause of the problem? People are quick to stop asking why. Why can’t people buy their own nets? Why are they no longer making their own nets from natural materials? Why are there no fish in the ocean? Why do communities lose their traditional skills that have been passed on from generation to generation?

Samantha Callan of the Centre of Social Justice, which was set up by Iain Duncan Smith yet apparently is not right-wing, also talked about root causes and getting the voices of the ‘marginalised’ heard by decision-makers. No one seems to want to talk about how just or effective a system is that puts decisions in to the hands of so few. What about people being able to make decisions for themselves rather than making pleas to the elite?

Thankfully, during the rest of the day a number of important issues were raised. It seems very few foundations have ethical investment policies for their endowments. Does their charitable giving even counter the damage they cause by investing in destructive industries? On a similar vein, who should non-profit organisations accept funding from? Foundations are ‘privileged, undemocratic and elitist’ but somehow their legitimacy and accountability is seldom questioned. How can we make them more accountable?

Too many foundations want to remain neutral and refuse to engage in political action; this is partly due to the constraints of charity law but also because many trustees are conservative and as the current board typically recruits new members, there’s little scope for change. There is also a lack of attention on the concentration of wealth and power and an almost complete absence of class analysis, which is often seen as being too closely aligned to political ideology.

A chilling workshop session researched ‘philanthropreneurialism’ in action. Stephen Ball from the Institute of Education exposed Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), the ‘proper hedge fund charity’ at the centre of a staggering web of connections to profit-led takeovers of the UK education system. ARK’s CEO comes from Murdoch’s News International; two other ARK graduates now head the schools inspectorate and Ofqual. Michael Gove loves ARK for its ‘robust measurement’ of ‘returns to justify investment’, while think-tanks like Adam Smith, IEA and Skills Forum are all promoting ‘Profit Making Schools’. Big as it is, ARK is one small part of the Gates-Clinton model of creative capitalism – “doing well by doing good “, where teaching people to make a profit is seen as the key to worldwide prosperity. UK corporations are being invited to fund skills schemes in their own interests; HSBC will fund financial literacy in order to get solvent customers later. Entrepreneurs themselves now take on the moral authority which used to belong to government and charities. Their business-led personal vision often includes dismissing the state and ‘the inadequacies of the urban poor’.

Then Niamh McCrea of the School of Social Justice at University College Dublin showed how Ryanair’s charity The One Foundation went into ‘venture philanthropy ‘ in the field of migrants’ rights. One operates according to a model which keeps its grantees to high performance targets at the risk of losing next year’s grants and which entails exceptionally detailed scrutiny of grantees. With One’s support, Ireland’s Migrants’ Rights Centre went from one to 17 paid workers and has significantly expanded and enhanced its campaigning work on migrants’ rights issues. However, the paper raised questions regarding aspects of the venture philanthropy model. For example, the hyper-scrutiny of people’s work; highly pressurised, time-greedy planning processes and the cultivation of organizational branding compromise equalities in the affective domain, that is in relation to the fundamental social goods of love, care and solidarity.

There seems to be a time-lag here. Philanthropy and the charity sector are still being overwhelmed by all the dead market-efficiency measures and profit worship of the 90s and 00s. How could we bring in the shared experiences, collegial decision making, horizontal organising that everyone’s been looking for? It felt as if collective models like Edge Fund, Network for Social Change and others might be really welcome to show the way.

Download a PDF of the Edge Fund presentation slides

Read the presentations of other speakers

Read blog from the organisers

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