Does Philanthropy Do Good or Harm?

Robert J. (Bob) Reid, PhD

The role of philanthropy in society continues to evolve and is increasingly nuanced with perplexing challenges to effective grant making. It is no longer sufficient to serve humanity with merely altruistic motivation. Increasingly, philanthropy is being asked to not only support important causes, but to also consider potential harmful effects related to an unhelpful footprint philanthropy can impose on its beneficiaries. Is it possible that philanthropy might even be disruptive to normal developmental processes (Matunhu 2011)? The need to raise such a question is, in itself, evidence of nuances that perplex the work of philanthropists.

Some even go as far as to suggest that charity may be unnecessary in today’s world or that if it is, there is simply not enough philanthropic resource to make a real difference (Zinsmeister 2016). Consistent with Zinsmeister’s excellent May 2016 article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, this post intends to make the case that philanthropy is truly making a positive difference.

Arguably, the need for philanthropy may be greater than at any time in recent history. Too many people across the world live in abject, perpetual extreme poverty. Yet, critics of modern day philanthropy seem to suggest that philanthropy can do harm instead of good. Recent research finds that private foundations are all too aware of the potential harm that can arise from well-meaning philanthropic intervention. Many are voluntarily practicing a “do no harm” approach in their philanthropy.

Evidence supports the view that private foundations are well aware of this circumstance and that they are becoming increasingly more skilled and creative in expanding positive impact and avoiding potential harm to beneficiaries in their grant making. Genuinely effective philanthropy can be like playing three dimensional chess with many important factors to consider.

My research, involving 33 foundations, found that domestic private foundations, in particular, are demanding more than ever from themselves in seeking to increase impact from, and reduce potential for harmful effects in, their grant programs. Like all organizations, private foundations can leave an unhelpful footprint (e.g., values, beliefs, culture, and external dependency) on the organizations, communities, and individuals they serve. The literature suggests that well-intended altruistic endeavors can unintendedly impose unhelpful dynamics on those they desire to help (Oakley 2013). One example might be to create an unhealthy dependence upon an external entity, thereby disrupting pre-existing internal developmental processes. In other words, it has been suggested that philanthropy can unintentionally impede the ability of organizations, communities, and individuals to help themselves.

The private foundations who participated in my research consistently expressed a passion for achieving as much societal benefit as humanly possible in their grant making. They were keenly aware of the potential for inappropriately imposing their ideas, values, and strategies on their beneficiaries. Similarly, the NGO’s in my research also demonstrated highly developed insights about how to participate in philanthropic activities in ways that avoid potential harmful effects.

Philanthropy has achieved much good in both developed and underdeveloped countries. For example, look at the transformational work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in response to public health threats and in fighting dreadful diseases on the African continent. In the United States, consider the great work in entrepreneurship by the Kaufman Foundation or in education by the Carnegie Corporation.

The literature provides examples where altruistic efforts can impose external ideas and values (i.e., philanthropy’s footprint) upon the communities intended to benefit from the aid provided (Matunhu 2011). It is understood that well-meaning philanthropists can inadvertently harm the communities they seek to serve, by failing to be sensitive to local cultures and leadership. Such insensitivity can ultimately disrupt natural developmental processes and result in perpetuating inappropriate levels of external dependency.

Concerns have been expressed that philanthropy can be disruptive to beneficiaries — prompting distraction away from self-generated solutions (Zinsmeister 2016). Private philanthropy has long been confronted by such concerns and my research discovered a positive trend among foundations in this regard. Foundations are becoming quite adept in their efforts to enhance focus, capacity, and resolve within the organizations, communities, and individuals they support.

Healy (2016) observed the existence of competing notions regarding what may be considered as “good” or “not good” from the perspective of different communities and/or cultures, giving rise to additional nuances confronting philanthropic practice. Such conflicts are inevitably the product of different perceptions of those engaged in philanthropy versus the people and communities they seek to serve. Clearly, performing effective, genuinely beneficial philanthropy is both daunting and challenging.

It goes without saying that philanthropy can be disruptive to the development of natural solutions, despite its inherent altruistic interventional purpose (Matunhu 2011). However, a presumption that all communities will ultimately find ways to independently overcome the challenges confronting them, if only allowed to follow their own natural development, seems naïve on its face. Too many disadvantaged groups and regions have failed to overcome devastating poverty. This is one of the reasons why philanthropy is needed. Many philanthropists are actively engaged in helping to stimulate internal problem solving in the communities they serve. Developing internal, culturally-appropriate, problem-solving capabilities can be essential to the widely embraced objective of sustainability.

There is considerable merit to helping communities develop their own capacities to help themselves — “teaching them to fish.” This seems fundamental to good philanthropic practice and was common in the findings from my research. However, criticism of the essence of philanthropic intervention as generally disruptive to otherwise normal developmental processes inherently fails to recognize the virtual permanent state of extreme poverty experienced in too many parts of the world. Taken to the extreme, the desire to avoid disrupting natural developmental processes could leave a significant portion of humanity permanently in a state of extreme poverty.

In the absence of philanthropic intervention, many groups would likely be unable to lift themselves out of extreme poverty for multiple generations. Good examples of philanthropic practice engage such groups as partners and seek to empower them in ways that are both effective and sustainable. Integrating evidence-informed practices into philanthropic efforts in a fashion that respects local culture and achieves beneficiary ownership of such interventions is at least as complicated to accomplish as strategic thought in three dimensional chess.

In the case of underdeveloped countries where certain groups have experienced prolonged exploitation by powerful groups and/or foreign nations, evidence suggests that normal developmental processes may be disrupted for many generations resulting in perpetual extreme poverty. Perhaps in these cases, philanthropic practice is more than a voluntary redistribution of wealth. Philanthropists are seeking ways to more effectively realize meaningful social good in sustainable ways — avoiding potential for harming beneficiaries.

Beyond avoiding potential for doing harm, my research suggests well-conceived and implemented grant strategy can stimulate, rather than impede, natural developmental processes. For example, access to clean water, if achieved in an undisruptive manner, can enhance community sustainability, and thereby, stimulate more natural developmental processes than otherwise possible.

Thoughtful questions can appropriately challenge and improve philanthropic practice. Challenges to the notion and practice of philanthropy should be given serious consideration in the spirit of self-reflection. Still, we should be thankful that foundations, NGO’s and individuals are willing to attempt to take on some of the most difficult threats to human existence and development. We should be encouraged by philanthropists who are working to serve highly vulnerable populations while challenging themselves to develop genuinely beneficiary-centered, sustainable initiatives in the cause of humanity.

My research found that private foundations and NGO’s are making great strides in this regard. In particular private foundations, through their partner NGO’s, are showing courage and resolve — willing to take risks while learning from their efforts to respond to humanity’s greatest challenges.

In conclusion, I’d rather fail in attempting to do something significant than fail as a result of not doing anything. As a field, philanthropy continues to evolve. As practitioners of philanthropy, we are learning much, but thankfully we are not afraid to persist in making a positive difference. Philanthropy continues to make a difference for all of humanity.


Healy, L. (2016). Universalism and cultural relativism in social work ethics. International Social Work, 50(1), pp. 11 -26.

Matunhu. J. (2011). A critique of modernization and dependency theories in Africa: Critical assessment. African Journal of History and Culture, Vol. 3(5), pp. 65–72.

Oakley, B. (2013). Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism. PNAS, Vol. 110, Suppl. 2, pp. 10408–10415.

Zinsmeister, K (2016). 12 Common Criticisms of Philanthropy and Some Answers. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

CEO at J. F Maddox Foundation

Originally published at on July 18, 2016.

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