Christmas, market models and philanthropy

Christmas has come and gone again.  Ah, Christmas.  It’s when we express our love of others through the giving of gifts, right?  No – wait – isn’t Christmas just a commercial thing, where we buy stuff which usually isn’t what the other person actually wants?  Hmmm – it’s a tricky thing Christmas.

Now, reread the sentences above, but take away the word “Christmas” and replace it with the word “Philanthropy”.

The comparison seems to work uncomfortably well.

The literal meaning of philanthropy is “the love of humanity”, and almost all philanthropy starts from a place of genuine caring.   However, love and caring are not often evident in philanthropic processes like applying for and reporting on funding.  And some philanthropy, particularly market-inspired models like Venture Philanthropy and Effective Altruism, feels more like purchasing than giving.

In her excellent book “Braiding Sweetgrass”, which explores the relationships between Indigenous North American knowledge and plant science, Robin Wall Kimmerer nicely explains the difference between a purchase and a gift.  She uses the example of socks. If a pair of socks is purchased from a clothing store, “I have no inherent obligation to those socks … there is no bond beyond the politely exchanged ‘thank yous’ with the clerk.  I have paid for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money.”  On the other hand, “what if those socks …. were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift?  That changes everything.  A gift creates ongoing relationships …. The currency of the gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.”

If we apply this analogy to philanthropy, market models of philanthropy often imply a transaction – “I will pay x dollars per year, and you will deliver y young people in work and out of trouble.”  As if changing the course of someone’s life is as simple as purchasing socks, as if adding money is all that is required.

But what does philanthropy which is inspired by love, gift-giving and reciprocity look like?  Christmas, at its best, is a model of reciprocal gift-giving, as are Māori giving practices like koha.   (There’s more about how philanthropy and Te Ao Māori can work together in here.) However, reciprocity is tricky in Western-style philanthropy – partly because some of us have too much and some of us too little, and partly because we are often not good at recognising and valuing gifts which are not commodities.  In an ideal world, wealth would be much more evenly spread, with reciprocity the norm, and let’s work to achieve this.

And, along the way, here are some suggestions for philanthropic practices:

  • It’s helpful to think about philanthropy as sharing our good fortune, and as an expression of love for humanity
  • Let’s be aware of the limitations of market models, particularly when applied to philanthropy. Not everything can be commoditised, or purchased, or scaled.
  • Don’t wait for the perfect initiative which meets all our carefully crafted criteria – if philanthropic money is not given out, we are in fact compounding inequality. An imperfect cause will likely do much more good than money that stays in a bank account or investment portfolio
  • Let’s take inspiration from gift-giving and reciprocity traditions, like Christmas and koha. And if in doubt, let’s err on the side of generosity.


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  1. Love this Kate… your words have put something quite complex and misunderstood, into a simple frame…thank you

    I would love to share this, with your permission, and of course attribute this to you.

  2. I re read this today and it resonated again. I have recently read Braiding Sweetgrass which was given to me by one of my daughters last Christmas. I have been thinking a lot about the things you have expressed so eloquently in this post. Giving is a complex concept as is receiving. We all need to get better at it.

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