It’s not everyday you see this! I thought to myself as I read the New York Times article, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”, a piece that dozens of my social media friends have circulated and commented on this week. Someone in a position of such power, being so self-reflective!
I was immediately impressed with the author, Peter Buffet, who is chairman of the NoVo Foundation and whose father, Warren Buffet, is a billionaire philanthropist known for giving away his wealth to make the world a better place. Buffet Jr.’s first insight is one we see often on the pages of Everyday Ambassador.
He reflects on his work so far in philanthropy,
“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…over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms. Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.“
Amazing. Can we get this piece circulated throughout the upper echelons of giving? All I can say to this reflection is “Amen!”. Although I would add that it’s important to note progress that’s already been made before we lament too critically a deplorable situation. Visionaries like Buffet’s father and fellow investor Bill Gates are already putting major money behind finding locally-inspired, culturally-savvy, well-researched innovations that will serve as building blocks to a better world.
But this was not even Buffet’s main point. What he really wanted his readers to understand was the disheartening reality of ‘conscience laundering’, in which his peer, wealthy investors are, “searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.” Otherwise known as: a company whose manufacturing destroys Amazonian rainforest then builds a hospital in South Africa, or a company who won’t pay living wages to employees in Bangladesh will sponsor a school in Senegal.
Whether these situations, or far worse, Buffet explains, “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’” And his point is that if we can’t disrupt this cycle, we are bound to remain stuck inside it, constantly spinning wheels that make the giver feel ever better, and those in need feel ever further away from the basic rights and services they deserve.
Buffet’s call to action is to his peers, for the most part. He calls for more ‘risk capital’ invested in projects that would fundamentally reshape systems that deliver public goods and protect basic human rights. Thankfully he’s speaking to a group with some visible leadership already, and ideally he’ll follow suit with his own investments.
But what do Buffet’s words matter to an everyday person like me?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Think about the dichotomies you experience in your life as well. I think about them every time I enter the World Bank building where I work, the stunning photos lining the walls in our pristine mini-skyscraper, smiling faces from poverty-stricken communities in which the Bank has invested in health and education projects. What is going on just outside the camera’s lens? Am I doing everything in my (albeit limited) power to make sure that my projects are building up truly effective interventions and not just keeping in place a status quo?
And you don’t need to be at a place like the Bank to be confronted by these questions. When I read through Everyday Ambassador articles I am inspired again and again by our members who are part of established institutions – a college campus, a community organization, a volunteer agency - and who are redefining how their institutions engage with the world. Even sans the billions, every one of us has the power of wide online networks, of technological know-how, of creative thinking skills, and most importantly, we have the power of social capital with the people we aim to serve.
It struck me as I reflected on Buffet’s words that I actually do see this everyday. Often it’s right here on this site: mature self-critique from remarkable young adults about their global service efforts. We may not (yet!) be billionaires like Buffet, but does this matter? Do we not still have power in our own initiatives? Are we not just as responsible for behaving ethically in our own efforts? After all, if we think our actions only matter when there are billions of bucks behind them, why are we even doing them at all?
So let’s all keep in mind Buffet’s call to action, keep telling our stories on these pages and elsewhere. Let’s keep reflecting on the human connections as foundational to effective social change. And let’s keep going out there and doing it. Building relationships with the people we aim to serve, learning enough about their lives and circumstances that we develop smart ideas about new systems and infrastructures.
By the time Buffet and friends take a cue from his own playbook, it will be just as important to have thoughtful leaders managing new systems and initiatives in which they can invest. That’s on us. Everyday.