#160 Immorality of Philanthropy

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Is Philanthropy Really Changing Anything? by Vidya Shah, syndicated from idronline.org, Oct 09, 2020



Zac: WELCOME back to Business Second Opinion Podcast. We’re always excited to bring you another episode:

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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.

I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take. 

Hey Carol

Carol: Hi Zac, 

Zac:  Ok Carol, We got a request on Twitter at biz_second_opinion to speak about philanthropy. 

Carol: Right, the tweet pointed to an article about philanthropy that is published in an online blog by Daily Good. The submission suggested it aligned with our Regenerative philosophy and approach and did not think we could counter anything in it. Can you see what they were seeing, what was likely in this reader’s mind that made them think “the blog authors must work with us?” That was actually suggested.

Zac: You all can check out this article, by the way, on dailygood.org by searching the story entitled: Is Philanthropy Really Changing Anything? By Vidya Shah. You know I’ll say that the folks on Daily Good do attempt to make all of us more conscious in our daily living through their articles, but not unlike all of us humans in modern times, they are missing some core things. The article speaks to the problems of philanthropy by first offering it as a solution to everything that is wrong with capitalism, from the pursuit of profit, to lack of government intervention, and wealth inequality. In the end, the article proposes that philanthropy could be a solution to all of these problems, but inexorably seems plagued by many of its own similar issues. So the article suggests that philanthropy take a 3 pronged approach instead: 

  1. Cultivate humility in program deliverables by removing an approach that measures “lives transformed” by philanthropy. In other words, this approach puts philanthropists in a place of needing to rescue poor people who are helpless victims and they want to stop doing that by stopping the measurement of it.
  2. Go beyond a one-way assessment of programme delivery where feedback is no longer about just program evaluation. Instead it goes beyond, to actually being a two way feedback process that listens to customers experiences, preferences, and ideas to help improve the quality of programs.
  3. Observe systems thinking towards systems change – With this idea the author proposes that we are all connected and so we need interconnected solutions. The author then describes a bit about their portfolios and how they approach systems thinking by looking beyond single point statistics and data by looking instead at what ultimately influences that data.

Ok I think I got it all.

Carol: What did they miss even with their Good Intentions?

Zac: Well I am sure we are gonna get to this part but the author never really considered the core premise of philanthropy to begin with. Is that where we are headed today?

Carol: It is a challenge of being a good hearted person seeking to live a purpose based life. Unfortunately, we are about a century behind in seeing how humans work as one nested entity in greater living systems. The authors are trapped in the behaviorist theory of humans. That is humans need some external impetus, incentive or directive, done benevolently in this case, to bring about change in their outcomes. I wrote an article for The Economist four years ago on a related topic. CSR as unethical practice. My argument relates to philanthropy. It is immoral in all its forms. That may seem harsh but consider this. All philanthropy exists to make up for shortfalls in the design of social systems which leads to inequity, inequality, indifference and inattention which leaves do-gooders working on the symptoms of radically inadequate systems design. Let’s give some examples of this case with philanthropy and good deeds. Do you see this?

Zac: Woo boy do I ever. When I worked in healthcare we saw it all the time. Philanthropists and donors would need to be called on to help fund some giant new project of some kind. And there would be a tremendous amount of cajoling and hobnobbing to try to get local foundations to extract as much money out of the wealthier citizens as possible for that build. There was rarely a conversation however about why the shortfall in funding needed to be filled by foundations in the first place. And what’s driving such an incomplete approach?

Carol: So the first problem we are working with is that we are on the wrong end of the stick when engaging in philanthropy. Fixing something after the fact and that is flawed. This leads to the next concern, which philanthropy, by its nature leads to. That is—Fragmentation. The symptoms are divided into problems or clusters of problems and worked on by different groups, theories and approaches, even on the same subject, arena or a person.

Zac: Seems to violate a few of the First Principles of Living systems. One example  of fragmenting while trying to ‘do good,’ is the entire world of disease focused philanthropy – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, you name it. All of these are focused on abstract diseases – and all with the same mandate of raising awareness and research for a cure. I’m getting pretty old Carol and I don’t think the $90 billion on research that the National Cancer Institute has raised in my lifetime or the 260 cancer nonprofits in the US seem to have made much of a dent in anything. So they soldier on working at crossed purposes with other organizations, designing redundant programs, and just generally spinning their wheels.

Carol: This shortfall you describe, of course, then starts off with a fragmented community in mind, or a person dissected into a fragment sense of themselves and the philanthropist’s offerings make this worse by working on parts.

This is compounded by each philanthropist working with this four century old paradigm and theory of change. Not only have they separated their focus from a whole system, planet or cosmos, which perpetuates and accelerates. They now set out to intervene with the billiard model of change. They are the cue stick and they determine who and what needs to move toward what particular pocket they need to put it in. And all this really does is continue to fragment and perpetuate and accelerate all the challenges that we have. I’m sorry to keep saying this billiard ball model, but it’s so clear to me and I hope that people can learn to hold that in mind as they go after some of these things.

Zac: Right like with cancer research it distills everyone down to cancer survivor or not. Rather than considering the entirety of that person in the scope of their life, community and planet. 

Carol: Where does that leave us? And what false assumptions does our blog writer make? 

Zac: Ultimately it leaves philanthropists still in the driver’s seat of other people’s lives. It assumes this behavioral assumption of external intervention. Like look at number 2 again. They are using a feedback driven process to raise the bar on their programs. It still puts the agency of the situation on the philanthropist and the foundation and takes it away from the people they are attempting to help – It still sees these folks as fundamentally in need of a change that only the philanthropist can deliver. The author attempts to soften the blow of this by talking to the people first, but it’s still about rescuing people beyond their own capability to help themselves. 

Carol: There are also concerns that are responded to from a Humanist paradigm but which are a major toxic practice. Although they don’t mention it in their earlier worry, if you are being rigorous, you can see that many of their worries come from projection of one group’s view onto other humans. Plus a nasty form of projection which is anthropomorphizing non-humans, to project human characteristics onto natural and non-human systems. This is a core practice toxic from philanthropy based in humanist thinking. Human centered.  

Zac: Another Humanist practice they pick up on is that in philanthropy, is that, “Paternalism rules,”  as Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All talks about, which the blog authors cite. This is where the power is in hands of the rich, or worse, it becomes colonizing, especially of minds and decisions of those who are enacting it. This is insidious and after a few generations, even after resisting for generations comes to dominate how everyone comes to think. Unfortunately they miss the point that this entire approach is “colonizing” by approaching unfortunate souls in desperate need of changing.

Carol: What the blog authors miss in their suggestions and examples of how we need to work is The Quantum Way. Working at the level of the Implicate order. This is working with what they senses cannot pick up but shapes the world we can see, hear, and touch. And work on it indirectly. Like attitude, culture, mindset, capability and to work little or at least less on the direct ideas as presented here. E.g. nudges and triggers activated from outside. The billiard ball hits by a cue stick of philanthropy toward a pocket determined by them. 

Zac: Working indirectly is hard for most people to get. I think that is because they want to help – so they feel compelled to do something even if it escalates a situation because they want results and they want to see them now! Even if that leads to conflict, and ultimately the effect is creating externalities and eventual backsliding. Even worse they think its about everyone else and not themselves! I’m always surprised when I hear a philanthropist who owns a series of fast food chains say, “but I give to the United Way diabetes research arm every year.”

Carol: That is why I think we have to keep pointing to it so people learn to see it. Let’s try some examples of indirect we all can relate to from our lives and know exist, even if we don’t know what to do.

Zac: Now I am no parent of the year by any means. But if I look how my wife has approached a situation with our daughter. I saw for years how she struggled to find a thing that she wanted to do whether that was a sport or hobby. I would get frustrated and look at what she wasn’t doing and point to solutions and things she could try or do. Instead my wife released that idea and instead tried to approach her by creating a ritual where she and our daughter would go for walks together. My wife would take the time to ask her questions to have her reflect on who she’s becoming and what’s moving in her life. So when my daughter decided to try out for soccer and look for a part time job, it came from her and has been on her terms. Now she loves soccer and her job, but it’s not about soccer or the job but her own ability to build her will towards creating aspects of her life where she finds meaning. Funny I never thought of soccer or where she works now in all the times I was pushing stuff on her

Carol: That’s such a beautiful example of refusing to be a cue stick and refusing to treat her as a ball that you have to move and to predetermine the pocket. Who knows what the right one is? In fact that metaphor doesn’t even fit in the world, and I’d love to hear from our listeners if they have ideas about what they think the metaphor is of quantum. What Alexa did when she went for a walk and the ritual that you spoke to is so important, and the questions, rather than giving answers, and the patience and the space it takes.

So what I did with my kids, and I wrote extensively about this in my most recent book The Regenerative Life, I invited each child, and I had a few of them to go through, at the age of six to pick something in their world that they wanted to have the family become involved in and they would invite us but they were in charge. My daughter picked cleaning her room. When they were nine years old, I had them pick a family system which they wanted to steward for the whole family. My son picked feeding us, and my daughter picked paying the bills. 

These were nine year old kids and you’re thinking, how in the world could you do that? Well, we sat down weekly in a family meeting, they projected what they wanted to be able to do, we talked about what capability they needed, what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, what role they wanted me to play. They were in charge of everything, and every Sunday night when we had our family meeting, it wasn’t me assessing them but them assessing how well I did on the role I agreed I would play, what we were going to do the following week, and what new capability was needed. That’s indirect, and it’s indirect in that I didn’t pick the pocket, I didn’t describe what the cue ball ought to be like, and I refused to be a cue stick.

So the same thing can happen in education. Schools which are based on value adding processes where kids become involved, rather than having knowledge and stuff they memorize. We can build education systems on self directed choices, designing our own learning, committing to the effects we want to have for a family, for a greater whole, and having time to reflect on a ritual basis. All of that is at the implicate level.

Zac: Looking at my own education, I can see the effects of direct and indirect on when I was the most engaged. It was always those projects where I was using my hands to design something fun. It was like the learning came in the process of the design where that was a rube Goldberg like machine to teach physics, or a board game to teach history. Although I loved it, I did always feel a little duped when it turns out I still learned something useful.

Carol: Another way to think of implicate is to look at systems and infrastructure that holds and guides what we can see. How hiring and legal systems have built in racism, classism, and then perpetuate the shortfalls. In family parenting, there has to be an understanding of not adopting the idea of the ‘teaching moment’, if it is the parent pointing to the point, but shifting to the parent invoking reflection based on goals the child or youth has set. And doing that reflection out of the ‘space and time’ of the event, when the emotional center is quieted and thinking can be self-directed. 

Zac: That idea of outside of space and time of the event is really hard to do. Because I feel like I always say we have no time for that kind of thinking…but really I’m just not creating it for myself intentionally.

Carol: Let’s look at their suggestions. The author’s suggestions are…

Zac: Right. So we ought to restate again to remind people of what they recommended.

  1. Cultivate Humility: Basically they are saying we need to stop counting so much and taking credit for the counting of lives transformed. Unfortunately this essentially gives up the credit for any change but accepts more of a “nudger” role, leaving them victims.
  2. Go beyond one way assessment program evaluation – instead move into more two way feedback conversations to understand people’s lives.
  3. Observe systems thinking towards systems change – instead evaluate philanthropy programs looking at the deeper causes of the surface metrics.

Carol: The humility should go beyond ‘not taking credit’ they speak to, to “We don’t know what is best for them”. They are right about numbers but miss the billiard nature of it, and fragmenting nature.  

The nudges and triggers to enable change is just toxic to a system being self directed. It’s like a benevolent behaviorism. And they’re suggesting there’s more work like coaching people along, I think, when they’re talking about nudges. But we want people to be a resource in the way Alexa was. She designed a system, she designed a ritual, and she left it to Sophie based on some questions. Questions are a very different way to be with people.

Zac: And none of this speaks to symptoms and the fragmented nature that philanthropists pursued by the benefactor. But Carol what would the argument here be about assessment. You talk about it in your No More Feedback book but what about in this context?

Carol: The Participation model (two way model) of the Humanist era that pervades business and they would like to bring to philanthropy. So as you say that is the basis of what they suggest. It is a step beyond imposed philanthropy. Ask their perception of product or served. It Is still downstream participation, no co-creative process even. Their participation is based on seeking insights to improve the quality and effectiveness of social programs (not lives) designed by someone else. And they don’t build any capability to do that for themselves.  Whole intention is to get better info or how to get them to the pocket.

Zac: So now we are back to systems thinking. The author gives an example of how they look at portfolio evaluation in the context of trying to measure second order causes. Again this feels like the pool cue striking the cue ball again. 

Carol: They also use the wrong paradigm of systems thinking. The ‘interconnectedness’ paradigm starts with and assumes parts for which they can find ‘interconnected’ solutions. Not a living system paradigm of systems thinking.

They suggest backing up one step in the process from that which one can count, e.g. enrollment numbers, to ‘learning levels’ of students. They see this a precursor to enrollment. It is all about getting still inside the targeted part of a system, not the system of their lives.

Need to change the work from scoring and billiards game and getting better at the billiards master (picking and focusing on a pocket, managing the prey/beneficiary/ and being a better cue stick) to working from an implicate order: measuring what the student measures, build capability to set own life plan, own learning plan, management of own resources.

Zac: I think they need to examine their own theory of change then. They are right about their worries with the way philanthropy works currently. But they don’t go to a quantum view which gives you an even clearer view of reality and how humans work in a system. But wait Carol, we titled this podcast the immorality of philanthropy, but did we really make that case here?

Carol: Well, the way I make the case is that everything philanthropy takes on comes from problems and shortfalls because of the ways we’ve designed systems for humans and natural systems to live in. So it’s a cleanup act. It’s coming in behind and works on letting people feel good about themselves, like your fast food owner you were talking about. That whole process pervades the suggestions that are here too. And in a couple of cases they’re not just in the billliard ball model, they’re trying to get beyond that, they’re trying to do more that is kind of a humanistic view. 

But I want them, before it can be not immoral, they have to have the people whose lives they’re working with be involved in the co-creation, not the participation, feedback, etc., and not interconnecting all the existing fragmented things and calling it systems thinking, and not being humble, which I can just see someone sitting in the corner and thinking well I’m just not going to take credit for that. There’s nothing here that goes back and deals with the implicate set, and if you were going to do that you’d have to work on the other thing they don’t take care of which is people being fully self directed in their lives.

Stay tuned for how to join us in laying out how apply the Quantum, Indirect theory of change to governing bodies for non-profit, for-profit and all kinds of boards help the organizations they serve be far more effective, faster and deeper.


Zac: We have our Virtual 2020 Summit coming up November 17. A few seats left. Focus is The Regenerative Governing Board working from a far more effective paradigm. Bring  some or all your Board of Directors, or Advisory board, any one in a role of Governors or other  similar bodies.  Join The Regenerative Business Summit Nov 17. Webpage page has details  RegenerativeBusinessSummit.com 

Carol: The Summit is for Business Teams. But we have communities for individuals who play different roles. Communities for Entrepreneurs, Educators, Change Agents, Economic Shapers and more. Check out SEED-Coommunities.com.

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Zac: This has been Business Second Opinion


Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice,  you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your businesses ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. 

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In today’s show, we examined:

This episode is helping us think about why philanthropy may be immoral based on all philanthropy exists to make up for shortfalls in the design of social systems which leads to inequity, inequality, indifference and inattention with do-gooders working on the symptoms of radically inadequate systems design. Why it is based on outdated paradigm which prevents even it effects from being effective. In fact, a better system needs be to created for each domain of living engagement and new capability to make use of it.

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