Do I Have the Charitable-Industrial Complex?

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As we strategize to do good, are we making the right moves?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Last week, Idealist Careers posted an interview with Peter Buffett—composer, philanthropist, and son of Warren Buffett—about his debate-spurring New York Times op-ed “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.”

After reading both articles, my mind buzzed with questions ranging from defensive to simple follow-up, directed at everyone from Buffett to society to myself. An ongoing dialogue ensued between my friends, family, and inner devil’s advocate.

Considering that Buffett’s op-ed was very pertinent to the Idealist community, I wanted to bring some of the dialogue here. Following are some quotations that resonated with me, and the thoughts they sparked. Now, I’d love to hear your take: what do you think?

1) “I noticed that a donor had the urge to ‘save the day’ in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.”

Buffett addresses an issue specific to philanthropy here, and as the article progresses, he directs most of his criticism toward the way we use foundation money, view charity, and run nonprofits; it’s all very big picture and big money.

But as I read, I saw his words as a wake-up call to all of us who work in small pictures, too. Whether we’re in the field, volunteering on weekends, or running grassroots organizations, I think we can also fall prey to the hero complex. With an urgent desire to help, do we proceed blindly? Do we adequately consider culture, geography, and societal norms before acting?

2) “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back’… But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

Again, Buffett expands his wealth-targeted critique to society at large: people soothe their guilt-ridden consciences with charitable acts, but in doing so, solidify inequalities instead of fighting them. I’m not rich and I can’t donate thousands, but couldn’t the sandwich I give away to someone hungry wreak the same harmful effect? Am I enabling a needy person to stay on the street by giving him “just enough to keep the pot from boiling over”? Suddenly it feels like I’m not solving hunger; I’m solving my own guilt.

It has become too easy to “give back” in ways that, if we push ourselves to be honest, might not be helping much. Charity shouldn’t be something we check off on our weekend to-do list and “nonprofit” shouldn’t be a buzzword we abuse as a marketing term.

As Buffett says, “Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”

3) “I really think we need two kinds of philanthropy. One is to stop the bleeding: the food, the shelters, all of those are necessary. But there should also be a real appetite for building scaffolding around a new system of behavior, new economies, new ways of looking at markets.”

Here Buffett expresses a kinder attitude toward immediate action: giving away my sandwich doesn’t propagate inequality if there are also people working on solving hunger as a larger issue.

So he’s not actually questioning that we might give back out of guilt, he’s asking us to reconsider how we give back. Is our action informed by “culture, geography or societal norms,” and does it have the backing of big-picture action to get to the problem’s core?

4) “It’s purpose and a paycheck and who wouldn’t want both? Being able to do something meaningful and put food on the table. You can’t argue with that. But then how can you make sure your deepest purpose is to no longer have a job?”

Buffett has a way of calling us out on the most wince-inducing truths. He’s right: how can you make sure your deepest purpose is no longer to have a job at your nonprofit? That got me wondering whether the best way to create change is by volunteering or running a side project. That way, you can start from scratch when something isn’t working; your job security won’t crumble when you decide to dismantle an initiative and rebuild it more effectively.

And yet, how can one balance a full-time job, family and friends, and conduct well-informed, structure-shattering, revolutionary nonprofit work? We need a “new code” Buffett, says, “something built from the ground up.” And I agree. But who can write it?

The undertaking seems daunting, overwhelming, maybe unapproachably gigantic. And yet, I don’t read hopelessness in Buffett’s words. I read challenge, complex but palpable tasks, and a call for more honest, critical reflection.

Perhaps most importantly, I read a need for better communication—both within our organizations and between individuals worldwide. There are infinite ‘teams’ in our bodies that work to heal us when we bleed; I imagine we would do well to act in the same way when our world is bleeding, too.

Do these quotations resonate with you? What problems do you see with our current approach to charity? What solutions come to mind?

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Comments (5)


  1. Cport writes:
    August 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    What solutions come to mind? I immediately thought of the article I read in the Huffington Post by Josh Funk about online courses on “how to give” with Warren Buffett. The article includes how this online course “allowed Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady foundation to expand the classes without adding staff to manage the program.” I understand the advantage of online courses being able to reach the masses, however, perhaps if billionaires like Doris and her brother would hire more staff and accept smaller profit margins they wouldn’t have to work so hard towards the end of their lives to give “it” away. IMO, what they are giving away are the salary increases not given to millions of Americans through the years. So yes, I agree we need “new ways of looking at markets and how to give back.” “Give Back” BEFORE your worker and his/her family reach the poverty line.


  2. Art Nicol writes:
    August 27, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    My experiences as a social justice activist and public servant exposed me to the hazards of ignoring our personal motivation for doing “good works” and the resulting compassion fatigue we encounter when we disregard our emotions as modern society teaches us so well to do. I learned that my desire to be helpful was rooted in co-dependency. I tended to enable addictive lifestyles instead of actually intervening in meaningful ways to offer an alternative to them. I had to address my ego’s orientation to my “helpfulness” and to my emotions in order to move beyond my habits of a lifetime as a well-trained, albeit unintentional perpetuator of this violent society.

    I eventually learned that the alternative to my ego is wholeness, my authentic nature as a spiritually oriented being with a spirit, will, mind, body, relationships and emotions that all need to be healthy and intentionally nurtured instead of neglected. I’ve now developed educational materials focused on two key issues that ego teaches us to avoid: 1) our true identities as whole people infused with the power of love and no longer under ego’s dominion of fear and 2) how to be in touch with and express our emotions as wholehearted, passionate beings after ego teaches us relentlessly to deny our emotions and treat them as irrelevant or at risk of making us “too vulnerable” to others.

    We need to reprogram ourselves individually to co-create a society that is not violent or based on fear. We are the building blocks of a collective society. We need to restore the health of ourselves as the bricks and learn how develop the mortar of love between us. We need to learn once again to tune into our hearts, embrace our power to love each other and stop perpetuating the ego’s way of death, which we call “survival of the fittest” but which actually is the extinction of the human race.

    A new structure for society begins with a new structure for each of us as whole people. I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned along my journey. Anyone interested can check it out at http://www.freedomwise.com by clicking on the link for the Heartbook of Healing Wisdom in the righthand list of categories under the list of posts. The Heartbook is a summary of the educational materials I’ve discovered that work for me and others with whom I’ve shared them. I’d be happy to share them with anyone who may be interested in considering their helpfulness.


  3. Andy Lai writes:
    August 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Now the question is: What can we do as a society to help bring down the gap between rich and poor? If charity doesn’t always help and nothing else, what can we do about it.


  4. Art Nicol writes:
    August 28, 2013 at 3:37 am

    As a society, I believe, we can write “new code” for the interactions we are engaging in and thereby reprogram society to run on a different operating system (e.g., set of operating assumptions). That New Code would substitute wholeness and authenticity as our identity (human nature) in place of the ego’s artificial concepts of our nature. It would substitute mutual compassion and appreciation of each person’s value in place of competition and depreciation of personal value as relationship norms. And it would substitute healthy emotional dynamics in place of denial of our emotions and the resulting rationalization, justification and other false reasoning processes in which the heartless ego pretends that we should think thoughtlessly.

    Runaway materialism in Westernized modern society has resulted in consumerism, capitalism, hedonism and other “isms” running amok throughout our society as fourth stage addictions. Feeling powerless to change this addictive process in such an advanced stage, we assume that the hierarchical structure of power that preserves the privileges and power of the elites must be maintained or chaos will reign. Instead of surrendering to these assumptions of personal powerlessness, we can instead engage in a peaceful evolution by transforming our concepts of self and the way we relate to one another and process our emotions. A society based on whole people who nurture themselves and each other does not have to hoard power, privileges, resources, etc. to the few. Lest it be assumed that the privileged class in any society is free from suffering, let me assert here that they suffer along with the rest of us. The main difference is that the wealthy are insulated from having experiences through which they are required to confront their hidden suffering and admit it. They are cushioned from publicly hitting bottom by the luxuries that imprison them in their comfort zones. From “on high,” they can observe the masses below them and publish their opinions about how the problems of the masses might theoretically be solved. Armchair commentators and academics abound in modern society. Oh, how do we weigh the value of opinions when everyone has one!?

    The conditions under which the masses live and die are best addressed by those who have experienced them. I suggest that the grassroots movement devote itself to promoting wholeness and emotional health among the masses and let the fruits of their joyful new experiences trickle up to the top from the bottom. Learning how to be whole and to nurture wholeness and promote emotional health is available at little cost. One does not need computer literacy or financial wealth to learn to take good care of oneself. Such wisdom is available at low cost if we’re willing to teach it and no longer reserve it as “special knowledge” held by a few professional experts who can then charge high fees for sharing it in small doses that prolong the treatment as long as possible or, best of all, postpone health entirely so that the pharmaceutical companies and medical-industrial-insurance complex can continue to reap exorbitant profits.

    The New Code would radically level the playing field and make being divorced from society by the special privileges of wealth a handicap. We do want the wealthy to feel welcome to join the new way of sharing. We don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to join in wholeness and discover the joys of heartfelt simple living. After all, they are as human as we are. In fact, some of them may already have the hang of it and be part of the leadership by which we can all be gracefully led into the transformed society Gandhi foresaw we each have the power to co-create as we become the change in the world we want to see.

    Can we see wholeness, congenial relationships and emotionally healthy hearts ahead of us as desirable changes for the betterment of the whole world? I can! Do we have the courage to change the things we can change? I believe we do! Let’s go forward into this vision together! It’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s the outcome of being practicing idealists who band together around the truth of who we really are when we set aside our egos and find our common ground in the nature in which we originally came into being. Imagine it! A New Code that includes the simple ethical code “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you if the shoe were on the other foot.”

    The gap between the rich and the poor is visible only if we measure life by artificial and meaningless increments that matter not at all upon our deaths. Fame, fortune and other social constructs that many compete to acquire are fleeting. If we measure life by our success in nurturing wholeness in ourselves and others and by the values of eternity and love, we are all in this together and the “gaps” among us prove to be illusory. What can we each choose to do now? We can choose to re-order our lives based on love’s values, let go of our fears and experiment with being true to ourselves so that we can be false to no man, woman or child.


  5. […] from nonprofit leader Dan Cardinali here and from Nandita Batheja on the Idealist blog here. Buffett’s piece is certainly doing what any good writing should, provoking people to […]


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