Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Does Philanthropy Serve the Common Good?
I love when I hear that a foundation is changing its priorities.It tells me that someone is paying attention, that the Board isn’t asleep at the wheel, and that the Executive Director is in a learning curve about the needs of the community they serve. Changing priorities tells me that a foundation may be avoiding the trap of entrenchment in some ideologically-static mission.
Michael Edwards recently wrote an article, “Philanthropy Needs a Major Overhaul to Better Serve the Common Good” in which he asserts that, “The best way to reinvent philanthropy is for ordinary people to get involved in a way that does not reinforce the unhealthy patterns of the past.”
I can see from grant research why he would make such an assertion because I see many foundations that give away lots of money, yet all of it goes to a specific political or religious cause. The question isn’t whether the recipients of the money are doing nice things with it, the civil society questions should be, “Are those the most important things to be doing?” and, “Should the government be giving tax breaks for giving money away when it merely represents maintenance of social inequalities or blatant promotion of personal bias?”
Social change must be driven by social needs but when the wealthy foundations are rewarded for doing nothing more than supporting programs for the wealthy as when donations are made to a senior center serving relatively well-to-do seniors, or the wealthy children who attend schools of a certain religion, the social responsibility a foundation assumes by accepting tax breaks is undermined.
The idea that foundations should be established for the public good is fundamental to civil society principles. But if a foundation refuses to change its mission even when more pressing concerns are evident in their community, one must question the motives and the relevance of their existence and whether our government should be granting tax exempt status for organizations that are nothing more than proponents of a class, race, religious, or political point of view.
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