BOJANA RADOVANOVIĆ: Beyond Charity – Philanthropy as Social Change

Bojana Radovanović is a research associate at the Institute for philosophy and social theory in Belgrade. She is a coordinator of SoliCare laboratory for Philantropy, Solidarity and Care Studies. Her research focuses on philanthropy studies.

Bojana Radovanović

In the last several decades, the field o philanthropy has increased tremendously. From an innocent and literal meaning of love towards humanity, today we can speak of different understanding of philanthropy and practices. The first association is the humanitarian work that usually cures the consequences and not cause of injustices or its future prevention. However, we are interested here about the political dimension of philanthropy. Numerous studies and thinking in the US and UK bear witness that philanthropy today has become a contradiction to democracy and that it fuels inequality. On the one hand, philanthropy can easily slip into plutocracy and be openly anti-democratic. On the other, philanthropy is democratic when it fosters and contributes to the public good. How do you explain these paradoxes and contradictions we are living? 

Yes, we talk and hear about philanthropy often, but it seems to me, we do not understand it sufficiently. We either applaud it uncritically or reject it ideologically. However, I am not sure we think of the same thing when we speak of philanthropy, nor do we understand different modes of this social phenomena, its causes and results. Most often philanthropy is equalized to donations – giving money for charities, or to philanthropic organizations – foundation. Nonetheless, it is a very narrow understanding of philanthropy. Offering nonformal, direct support and engagement though informal groups in order to achieve a common goal is a universal phenomenon. For us to understand philanthropy in different socio-political context, it is necessary to observe its many shapes. 

Let me underline, philanthropy includes any action when our time and money, with other people or individually, though formal organization or informal groups, are dedicated to the cause of reducing other’s suffering, known or unknown peoples, or in order to improve the quality of life in a community. Thus, philanthropy is also when we volunteer in a homeless shelter or participate in protest against mini hydropower plants, when with neighbors we clean a park in our hood or when we organize a charity concert for stipends for a colleague. Philanthropy is also when we donate our clothes or toys to the orphanage, or give money to ecological movements, make meals and share it with fellow citizens, or when we text message as a donation to health treatments, etc. The widest definition of philanthropy would be a voluntary act for a greater good.    

Critiques that it is anti-democratic and increases inequalities is most often directed to the practice we call “elite” or “big philanthropy” – when very rich people establish foundations and invest enormous resources for programs for greater good. Why is this problematic? Given that they have significant resources, such organization have power to influence many lives, often, whole societies. And often times, they can impose their own vision of common good. Unlike official bodies, that is, elected and replaceable officials in the bodies of democratic governments, it is not possible to “overthrow” philanthropic organization if citizens are not satisfied with results of their endeavor. In addition, such foundations often work in systems of tax relief that leads to reduction of available resources for programs of general interest defined though democratic procedures. If we add to this that tax systems can favor those with bigger resources, it is completely legitimate to ask if “elite” philanthropy in such a framework solves problems or makes them worse. 

Nonetheless, we cannot sporadically claim that philanthropy is against democracy and that allphilanthropy increases inequality. Actually, the opposite is true. Philanthropic organizations mostly make possible decentralization of processes of defining common good, and tighten pluralism of attitudes that question the dominant system of values. Concretely, without engagement of volunteers, activists, donors though formal and informal women’s organization, there would be no change in establishing women’s human rights, more just and egalitarian society.

If we assume that the field of philanthropy is heterogenous, it seems that there are principles and norms that lead to substantial change and articulation that lead to social justice, public good and dismantlement of bad transfers of power. In your opinion and according to your research, what practices would support this? What do we need to pay attention to, especially in the context which we inhabit?

If we are asking ourselves what kind of philanthropy leads to substantial change and better and more just society, I think that philanthropy that starts from real needs of person who receives the support considering her vision of good and wellbeing. Philanthropy that understands common good in ways in which everyone involved in philanthropic action see it. Philanthropy that opens the spaces for the voice of others and different voices, that deals with “difficult themes”, that criticizes the state of the affairs, etc. It seems to me that we always need philanthropy, it is only question which forms is best suitable for certain purpose and cause. Think about this, if today we do not donate to charity organization or we do not send a text message, an ill child maybe does not get the necessary care. Or, if we do not prepare “a solidary meal”, one whole family will be hungry. Many of our fellow citizens who are ill and hungry need the urgent support and I think we need to do everything in our power to reduce their suffering. Still, I do think that the real philanthropy is the one that acts with the goal of making a society in which health and satisfaction of basic nutritive needs do not deepened on anybody’s good will, but are taken care though public institutions. 

In the process of building egalitarian and just society, a better society, I think that we as a society should agree and negotiate on what we take common and public good to be, and critically rethink it. What priority is health and health care? What kind of social protection? Where is education? Culture? Science and research? Sports? etc. Then, we should agree on the guaranteed rights (and who guarantees its fulfilment), and what remains in the field of voluntary actions. At the end, we also need to understand the ranges and limits of philanthropy in securing the public good. 

Doubtless there are many different motives of why we give and support certain ideas, principles and organizations. Also, there is a resistance to the very word “philanthropy”, precisely due to the bad use of power and incomplete picture of who gives. It seems to us that we insufficiently speak of people who give, except to label them as changemakers or altruists. The picture is a bit more complicated. In what ways does the one who gives commit herself? Do you think there is a certain responsibility inscribed in giving/donating?

Indeed, there are many reasons and motives why we dedicate time and money to support certain causes, principles, persons or organizations. Research shows that some of the reasons we do is because we truly care about people in trouble, because we also think that it is our duty to do so, because we empathize, because we are asked, and even because we want to “look good” in the eyes of the others; we also give because we want certain material privileges, tax reliefs, etc. 

The reasonability of a giver is enormous. Philanthropy is often understood in terms of asymmetry where, on one end, there is a person who has resources (often material ones), and on the other end, is the person in need of resources. Persons (and organizations) that give also have power not to give and affect the use of resources. It is questionable in what capacity is the one in need also in a position to refuse the support, when situations of poverty, sickness, unemployment, etc. usually force them to accept any conditions. Notwithstanding, this scene does not have to be understood in terms of asymmetry. I have already mentioned that the true philanthropy would start from the real needs and desire of the user of resources and her own vision of wellbeing.

Whether we overvalue its ranges or fault it for social injustices, it is very important to understand and agree about what are we talking about when we talk about philanthropy. It is even more important to understand different forms of philanthropy, its force, but also results and effects, both for those who participate or start these activities, as well as those who are the targets of it (bearing in mind that often times they are the same person). With this aim in mind, recently, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory has opened Laboratory for Philanthropy, Solidarity and Care – SolidCare. 

Interview by Djurdja Trajković


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