Do I Have the Charitable-Industrial Complex?


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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