I’ve been reading a lot on Metafilter and various blogs about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99 percenters, which has brought up an issue which has nagged me for a while; it is sometimes mindbogglingly difficult for me to reconcile my background and my beliefs with the sector I work in. Philanthropy inevitably involves the wealthy and powerful. I’m fortunate that the vast majority of the wealthy and powerful I work with are genuinely good people who have a burning desire to make the world a better place, although occasionally I do encounter an attitude that leaves me bemused or despairing.
One of the earliest commentaries on philanthropy I read when I first started working in the sector was the 1999 Allen Lane Lecture by Stephen Burkeman; it still makes fantastic reading because it zeroes in on the heart of some of the real issues that make people cynical about philanthropy, and creates some discomfort for those of us who believe in it and defend it.
Beside that, it seems obvious that Western society is in a particularly parlous state right now; that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, and the massive and widening gulf between those with wealth and those without, is getting worse and leading to ange and disenfranchisement as well as – on both sides of the debate – wildly distorted worldviews. And that encouraging wealth generation via the stockmarket and the housing bubble – focusing on making money through money, rather than making money through providing services or making stuff people need – is a totally, ridiculously unsustainable way to run a society (and yes, that is a huge generalisation and the real situation is far more complicated than that – but when you have a large number of unoccupied luxury investment properties which nobody can afford to rent on the one hand, and a squeeze on housing because there aren’t enough affordable properties for sale or rent on the other, it’s not difficult to draw conclusions, hmmm?)
That’s why it’s been a pleasure of sorts to see the US-based Resource Generation, a bunch of young people with wealth who are doing stuff like advocating for tax reform, encouraging their family foundations to consider impact and program-related investing, funding grass roots social justice campaigns. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to scoff at, and it’ll be interesting to see whether it grows or burns out – but at the same time it is sending a message, and also doing some practical stuff (however small-scale).
Paraphrasing a commentator on Metafilter, we’ll always have rich kids, but it’s better to have socially responsible rich kids, who care about not being exploitative, than a bunch of Paris Hiltons.