Upside Down

Happy New Year! My two questions in this blog are about philanthropy and democracy: What does it mean to democratize philanthropy? Is philanthropy a democratizing force?*

Every once in a while, I come back to these and unpack them from a different angle. Today it’s about the nature of the power relationship in each. Democracy is about collective deliberation, creating a new mode of decision-making. Schattschneider said when you increase the number of people in an argument, you change the power dynamic. To democratize is to change the power dynamic by giving more people access to decision-making.

Democracy has a verb. Is there a verb for philanthropy? What does it mean to philanthropize? (Well, I talked about expressive and directional modes of philanthropy, so that’s one set of meanings.) It means to give money. I think we usually conceive of it as reinscribing (a college word I always liked the sound of, but don’t think I had the opportunity to use correctly until this sentence) an existing power relationship: the rich give to the poor. Or for their benefit. (Mostly “for their benefit” – not directly to them. If anything, we have elaborate social structures so that we can avoid having to make that transaction, that gift, directly.)

So maybe what it means to democratize philanthropy is to upend that traditional understanding and image in two ways: by making giving more an act of solidarity, rather than noblesse oblige, and by remembering and highlighting that giving has always been multidirectional. Mutual aid, tithing, zakat, alumni giving – there’s a lot of “horizontal” giving, among poor and rich.

But in addition to (I almost said “beyond,” but thought better of it) image and perception, there’s a power relationship at the heart of philanthropy. It creates a power dynamic where none existed before: one who gives voluntarily, one who receives…voluntarily? Gratefully? Grudgingly? While democratizing multiplies horizontal ties, “philanthropizing” – in some of its key forms – multiplies vertical ties. So in that sense, it’s NOT a democratizing force – just the opposite.

I’ll leave for another time whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a thing.

* After completing this post, I went back to embed the links, and saw that I originally framed the first of my two questions as, “what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?”, and not “is philanthropy a democratizing force?” After nearly three years, I’ll allow myself to expand a little!


Tags: , , , ,

2 Responses to “Upside Down”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Such Great Heights Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (for now). « Upside Down […]

  2. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » 3 Years in the Hole Says:

    […] Vertical ties and horizontal ties in giving […]

Leave a Reply