McNellis: Disrupting Charity?

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Matthew 26:11

By John McNellis

Once upon a time I thought the difference between philanthropy and charity was that between the Episcopalians and Catholics: zeros on the balance sheet. A million dollar bequest was philanthropy, ten bucks in the poor box was charity.

I have since learned that philanthropists are offended by this all-too-common misunderstanding. They — and, more particularly, their minions — will tell you the difference is fish. Philanthropic fundraisers insist that giving a man a fish is charity (pronounced as if polite company avoids its usage) while teaching him to fish is philanthropy. Given half a chance, these fundraisers will happily expound upon the will-sapping nature of fish giveaways while extolling the fisherman’s noble self-sufficiency.

A million dollar bequest was philanthropy, ten bucks in the poor box was charity.

Philanthropy tackles society’s problems head-on while charity simply throws money at them, kicking the can of tuna down the road. Philanthropy cures societal woes; charity stuffs fortunes down a rat hole. If this were the whole story, who would ever choose to donate to a group that merely hands out food over one dedicated to solving hunger?

Few in Silicon Valley. Non-profits devoted to philanthropy are reeling in boatloads of cash. In its latest annual report, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation crowed that, with assets of $4.7 billion, it is now the largest community foundation in the country. The SVCF wants to solve social issues through technology and innovation. CEO Emmett Carson writes, “And given that we live in the heart of Silicon Valley, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we are disrupting traditional notions of giving and community.” It should also be no surprise that the SVCF would appeal like pancakes on Sunday to charitably-inclined tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The Valley is full of brilliant men and women whose success has been founded upon disrupting traditional business through technology. The pitch that they will succeed where others have failed, that with their genius and money, philanthropy will at last eliminate age-old societal miseries is seductive. That hunger or homelessness or even poverty itself might be vanquished through technological brilliance and innovation is indeed a comforting thought. And, since what the SVCF means by “disrupting traditional notions of giving” is that it will contribute nada to traditional charities, it would be particularly lovely if it were true.

The Food Closet is an old-school charity. It’s devoted to feeding the poor in Palo Alto, one of the country’s richest cities. With no aspirations of curing hunger — in fact, with no philanthropic ambitions at all — it hands out groceries five days a week to the hungry. If you were to ask any of its long-term volunteers whether she believes poverty is curable, she might ask you to spend an hour handing out groceries and decide for yourself. She might ask you to decide how many of the homeless you serve are mentally ill (whether genetically or a result of accident, alcoholism, drug addiction or simply the horrors of long-term homelessness). She might ask you to count how many of your recipients are blind or crippled or suffering from some other life-wrecking malady. She might point out a grizzled Viet Nam vet who hasn’t been right since 1969 or a real-life Forrest Gump; that is, someone so developmentally challenged that a monsoon of fishing lessons would produce nary a minnow. After that single hour of retail charity, you might begin questioning whether any amount of philanthropy — however brilliantly enhanced by technology — will ever cure poverty completely. It might occur to you that maybe Jesus was right.

The tiny Food Closet serves about 75 people a day. Because its food and almost all of its labor are donated, it has an annual budget of less than fifty thousand dollars. Due to a series of mergers over the years, the Food Closet had become a small part — if not the smallest — of InnVision Shelter Network, a non-profit devoted to helping the poor become self-sustaining. Early this year, Shelter decided it could not find fifty thousand dollars for the Food Closet within its sixteen million dollar plus budget. When the Food Closet’s volunteers then collected the money to save their charity, Shelter changed tack, declaring it was more of a philosophical rather than financial issue. With those pesky fish swimming into the conversation, its CEO announced that her board had no interest in old-school charity. Echoing that perennial break-up stratagem — “It’s not you, it’s me” — Shelter cut the Food Closet loose.

The Food Closet story has a happy ending; its volunteers replaced Shelter with a more sympathetic parent non-profit. But many traditional charities are less fortunate and are losing ground. The SVCFs of the world want to fund results, not unending charity. And they have a point. But when you’re contemplating how you’re going to make the world a better place through your year-end philanthropy, you might set aside a few bucks for those who will always be disadvantaged. Jesus also said, “…Whatever you did for the least of these…you did for Me.” Matthew 25:40.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.


Originally published at news.theregistrysf.com on November 24, 2014.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated The Registry’s story.