Good philanthropy involves looking wealth squarely in the eyes 

If we are donating money, whether it is $5 or $5 million, whether as individuals or foundations, we all need to answer the same, deceptively simple question.  Which is this: “where should we give our money?”  

Common responses include funding causes which have affected us personally, funding on an ad hoc basis to those who ask, or funding things which appear to provide maximum impact per dollar.

A more self-reflective and justice-focussed approach is to look wealth squarely in the eyes, and:

  1. consider that key enablers of wealth include colonisation, environmental exploitation, and privilege,
  2. and, therefore, focus philanthropy on returning wealth to its source. In other words, fund indigenous, environmental and equity causes.

Happily, if we want to help build a just, sustainable and equitable world, this approach is also highly impactful philanthropy.

Let’s explore these concepts in more detail, including considering what philanthropy is, why it matters, different approaches to the question “where should we give our money,”  how wealth is enabled by colonisation, environmental exploitation and privilege, and how we might practically respond to these insights.

What is philanthropy?  

Let’s start from the beginning – what is this thing called philanthropy?  If we combine the original Greek meaning of philanthropy (the love of humanity) with the more common understanding of philanthropy as “the giving of money”, a reasonable definition is “sharing wealth for the benefit of humanity”.    Although, as my friend and colleague Haimona Waititi points out, this definition reflects a western worldview which centres humans – which may also explain why environmental issues are often not high on funders’ priority lists.  Another definition I like is from a former chair of Philanthropy Australia, academic Bruce Bonyhady – “Good philanthropy addresses the causes that made philanthropy necessary in the first place.”

Why is philanthropy important?

It’s neither fair nor right for some of us to have too much money when others don’t have enough to meet their needs.  In an ideal world, philanthropy would be unnecessary, as everyone would have enough.  But until that time, if we are among the lucky ones who live financially comfortable lives, we should be sharing some of our wealth.

So, how do we go about this? 

Back to the seemingly simple question we started with: “where should we give our money?”    First, let’s look at three common ways in which this question is answered, and who are the winners and losers in each approach.

  1. Giving to causes which have touched our lives.  This is a common and natural approach to philanthropy.  However, because of the demographics of people with money, this approach tends to favour “white middle-class” causes, for example universities, cancer research and the arts.  Because people with money are less likely to have been personally affected by social issues like poverty, violence and environmental disasters, these causes tend to miss out.
  2. Giving to those who ask.  A fundraiser, grant applicant or friend asks us to donate to a good cause, and we do.  And this is a perfectly fine and generous way to go about philanthropy.  However this approach tends to favour big organisations with professional fundraisers, and smaller, grassroots organisations without fundraising capacity tend to miss out.
  3. Giving based on perceived impact per dollar. Approaches like Social Return on Investment and Effective Altruism advocate funding organisations which can show measurable impact and provide the “biggest bang per buck”.  This approach has merits, however, as Albert Einstein said, (he was in fact quoting William Bruce Cameron), “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”   Impact measurement, as I have previously explored, is full of fish-hooks, and organisations with easily measurable purposes (for example tree planting or vaccination programmes) are favoured.  Those who tend to miss out include organisations with long term or less measurable outcomes (for example inter-generational change and advocacy) – and those who can’t afford an expensive third-party impact assessment.

What might a better approach look like? 

Here’s a different way for individual donors and funding institutions to answer that deceptively simple question:

If we have more money than we need, and, if we accept that this situation is neither fair nor right, and, we want to share our wealth, why not simply return some of that wealth to its source?

In other words, let’s share our wealth with the people and the land which has been negatively impacted by wealth creation.

So, what are the main sources of wealth really?

Here are three key ones:

  • Colonisation (also known as Settler Colonialism).  Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, colonisation included dismantling indigenous social and legal systems, suppressing language, culture and religious beliefs, and aggressive land acquisition. Looking only at this last issue, 95% of land is no longer in Māori ownership, which means that Māori economic and cultural resources have been largely transferred to non-Māori.  This in turn means that all of us who own property have directly benefited from the dispossession of Māori.  (This same concept can be applied in other countries, for example, in the US, wealth has historically come from both slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans, or, in the UK through the extraction of wealth from its colonies.)
  • Environmental exploitation. We extract food and materials from the earth and sell them as products at an alarming rate.  According to Earth Overshoot, “humanity is using nature 1.7 times faster than our planet’s biocapacity can regenerate.”   Worse still, if everyone consumed like the average New Zealander, we would need 3.3 planet earths to keep up.  This starkly illustrates the fact that if our wealth is derived from extracting resources from the land and/or from consumerism, we have benefited from the exploitation of the earth.
  • Privilege. We might be born equal, but we are all not born with equal opportunities. The  family, location, health, and socioeconomic situation we are born into is like a lottery.  Chances are, if you are involved in philanthropy, you won this lottery on the day of your birth. And that is privilege, that is inequity. Another way of thinking about privilege is comparing it to biking with a tailwind; we still have to work, but there is an invisible force that makes it much easier to get where we want to go. Like it or not, anyone with wealth is benefiting from privilege and inequity.

Oh, that is uncomfortable – how do I process that?

It is worthwhile for every funding organisation and every individual donor to take a good hard look at where our wealth comes from.

Here’s my personal example.  Firstly, my family owns a house on land where Te Āti Awa has mana whenua, therefore we have benefited from colonisation.  Secondly, we used to own an internet development company, and the IT world requires mineral extraction, energy, and consumerism, so we have benefitted from the environmental exploitation. Finally, my family has privilege – we have never been homeless, never gone hungry, never been at the sharp end of the justice system.  Which means that our comfortable life is derived from a combination of colonisation, environmental exploitation, and privilege.  Maybe yours is too.

What does this mean for where funding should go?

So, after analysing where wealth comes from, a more self-reflective and justice-focused way of doing philanthropy is to return wealth to its source.  Here’s how:

  • If we have benefited from colonisation, give to Te Ao Māori [indigenous] organisations
  • If we have benefitted from environmental exploitation, give to initiatives that support climate action, sustainability and biodiversity.
  • If we have benefited from privilege, give to causes which reduce inequity and poverty

Maybe we choose one of the above, maybe we spread it across all three.  Maybe we hold some funding back for other causes.  Often, initiatives fit into more than one of the above categories and sometimes all three.

Again speaking personally, we have focussed our small philanthropic trust on the first of the above, supporting initiatives which increase the vibrancy of Te Ao Māori and address racism.

In summary…  

We live in a world where some of us have too much and some of us don’t have nearly enough.

We live in a world where wealth is enabled through colonisation, environmental exploitation, and privilege.

We live in a world where philanthropy often ignores this uncomfortable fact, and instead tends to fund causes which have touched us personally, or reactively to whoever happens to ask, or quantitatively to causes that appear to provide bang for buck.

We can do better than this.

Let’s look wealth squarely in the eyes and acknowledge where our wealth came from.  And let’s then return money to its source by funding indigenous, environmental and equity causes.

And through this, let’s intentionally contribute to a just, sustainable and equitable world.

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  1. Beautiful and eloquent as always, Kate. Thank you.

    (I like to think that we can all be philanthropists – not through money necessarily, but in the currency we have available to us, whether that be time, skills or simply heart. Acknowledging, of course, that generally those of us with the most privilege, have the most time to contribute)

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