Philanthropic taking – who should decide what’s good for us?

The social sector is rife with strange power dynamics. On the one hand the social sector is about giving, both the act of giving and the perceived selflessness of being rich enough to have money to spare.

So obsessed are we with giving, that it seems a quarter of social sector organizations have some form of “give” in their name.

The corollary to giving, of course, is taking.

A focus on “philanthropic giving” sounds noble, and sexy. So sexy and admirable is philanthropic giving that the Knight Foundation recently released a playbook for organizing giving days, and countless technology companies are springing up to make every day donors feel like heroes, while taking 3% donation processing fees.

Noble indeed.

But heroes need victims to save. In the social sector, the counterpart to philanthropic giving is philanthropic taking. Folks like me are hired by nonprofits and foundations to help them model their theories of change, a fancy way of defining one group’s (the “philanthropic giver”) vision for another (the “philanthropic taker”).

Nonprofits like the Family Independence Initiative (FII) have called out this traditional take on philanthropy, opting instead for their yet unproven strategy of having low-income families organize themselves out of poverty. The core argument here is that the top down model of philanthropic providers setting objectives for target populations is not only troublingly paternalistic, but also ineffective.

The fundamental premise of one person setting objectives for another is that the latter person doesn’t know what he or she needs. Proponents of this approach in anti-poverty interventions point to what they perceive to be, effectively, the economic irrationality of the poor.

Yet there is evidence to suggest the poor, even the extreme poor, are quite economically rationale, and that the poor maximize their happiness as any other economic actor does, as argued in the excellent book Poor Economics.

While I might make a different decision than you, that doesn’t necessarily make either of us irrational. We simply assign different values to different outcomes. The same is true of the poor.

The trouble is that foundations and nonprofits are in the business of assigning their values to other people’s problems. And why shouldn’t they? It’s their time, and their money, shouldn’t it be spent to maximize their social ambitions?

Sure, why not. But what if the best way to see a given change in the world is to listen for solutions rather than preach them?

That’s the simple premise behind the budding beneficiary feedback movement, which argues we need to listen more to the voices of so-called program recipients (and perhaps less so from folks like myself).

This line of thinking is what lead me to ultimately consider the Cash Transfer Equivalency (CTE) metric, which I introduced in a post last week. While the CTE is admittedly an imperfect evaluative metric, as a planning tool it is a simple way to quantify the value a program participant excepts to receive from a social intervention.

If philanthropic giving is about more than self-aggrandizement, we would be wise to reconceive program participants as more than philanthropic takers.