Thursday, May 19, 2005

Of Charity and Philanthropy

[I've been sitting on this post for quite some time. It's in response to the first of the Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy entitled "Goals and Intentions: What Should Today's Philanthropy Aim to Do?"]

The Dialogue focused on a discussion of the difference between charity and philanthropy as a way of envisioning what it is that philanthropy ought to be occupying itself with. This is a relatively easy distinction to draw with regard to institutions. Charities are the grantseekers; philanthropies, the grantmakers.

I prefer, however, to refer to these entities as virtues because, too often, philanthropoids like to flatter themselves with the term philanthropy as if what they do is somehow superior to "mere charity," which is left to other, lesser beings. Never mind the fact that, organizationally, philanthropy depends on charity to actually accomplish its goals. Anyone can claim to be a philanthropist from an organizational perspective. If you work for a philanthropy, you're a philanthropist. Well, not necessarily, as somebody once told a particularly arrogant foundation program officer, "You're not a philanthropist. The man who set this place up was. You just work here." I am so irritated by the hubris of some that I just want to define philanthropy out of the hands of everybody, and, in due time, I plan to do just that and make it hubris to call yourself a philanthropist.

So charity and philanthropy ought to be looked at as virtues, but what's the difference? Well, I like Karl Stauber's vision of a continuum with charity at one end and philanthropy at the other, and so I will attempt to travel this continuum beginning with charity.

Amy Kass began the dialogue with a quotation from Lao Tzu: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." This begins to illustrate our continuum. Someone responded that this progression is all well and good, but sometimes you have to change the fishing industry, too. (I respond with the words of Terry Pratchett: "Build a man a fire, you keep him warm for a day. Set a man on fire, you keep him warm for the rest of his life.")

She was right. The charitable impulse is that impulse, that excellence, that allows us to identify with the problems of another person, and to care about and to work toward a solution to those problems. So we meet this man who is hungry, and being blessed with copious amounts of these fish, we give him some. We see him the next day and give him some more. Eventually, though, we realize that maybe if we just taught the guy how to fish, we wouldn't have to keep doing this because he'll feed himself. Maybe he'll even catch more than he needs, and he can sell the surplus. Maybe he too will become a philanthropist just like us.

But if we're really charitable, we begin to see that this guy has friends, and they're hungry too. In fact, we have an entire village of people who don't know how to fish. Most of them are illiterate, too, so the "How to Fish" books we ordered won't help right now. So we set up fishing schools to teach these people how to reap the resources of the nearby river, but it turns out that another village, a village of farmers, upriver has been allowing their fertilizer to run off in to the river, and it's killing all the fish. So we start campaigns for better environmental regulation to protect the wildlife, and talk to the people downriver who've begun complaining that there aren't enough fish for them now.

Notice the picture keeps getting bigger and bigger, and pretty soon we've forgotten the original guy's name. Come to think of it, did we ever learn it? No, because we didn't ask. His name is Mortimer. He married Louise, his high school sweetheart. They have two kids, Lisa and Marie. But we didn't know about that. How could we? I hadn't made that part up yet. Then again, we never bothered to find out about them. We were too busy reforming the fishing industry.

In my mind, the perfection of the charitable virtue would be philanthropy. Charity allows you to identify with the condition of another and work toward its amelioration, but this impulse naturally drives us to help more and more people. At some point, though, human fallibility creeps in. Humans have to abstract. We don't think about Mortimer. We think about Mortimer's town. What's the town's name? Townville. We just learned that, too. We think about "the commmunity," an abstraction which may or may not include Mortimer. This is only human. Maps are not the same size as the places they represent for a reason; humans can't take that much information into account, nor would we want to. If we had a map of Townville as big as Townville, what would be the point of the map? Essentially, we cannot work the big picture with perfect resolution. We cannot see all and each at the same time, but the absolute perfection of the charitable excellence, i.e., philanthropy, would require doing just that.

But if seeing, understanding, and working for the benefit of all and each is impossible, then it would follow that philanthropy is impossible for human beings. Correct. There is a reason that the first recorded mention of the word "philanthropic" is applied not us mere mortals but to a god, Prometheus. Only a god could see the potential within all and each, never lose sight of that, and sacrifice for it. There is a reason that the philosopher Francis Bacon identified "philanthropia" as "the character of the Deity."

So what of all us would-be philanthropists in the world? We should get used to the fact the power that set this place up is the philanthropist among us. We just kind of work here.

To be charitable is human. To be philanthropic is divine.

Who, then, are our saints and who are our charlatans?

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