Philanthropy: We Need to Talk About Power

Nadia Owusu
Jul 10, 2017 · 11 min read

The global economy is dominated by inherited wealth. This is a fact of capitalism. It is a fact of capitalism that we — we, meaning Americans — have long avoided interrogating. We have long avoided interrogating this fact despite the way we spit the word privilege out of our mouths, like an accusation or an admission of guilt. But privilege is a product of the system, just as poverty is, just as inequality is. It is not the cause.

We have long avoided interrogating what the primacy of inherited wealth means despite its obscene obviousness in our daily lives. We turn on the TV and lull ourselves to sleep in the glow of real housewives, and undercover bosses slumming it with their employees, and apprentices to a tycoon who was the inheritor of a family fortune made from real estate, and allegedly also from wartime profiteering and civil rights violations. That tycoon used to live in a three-story penthouse in New York City with 24-karat gold and marble trappings in the style of Louis XIV. Now, he lives in the White House. The housewives are the daughters of the wealthy who married the even wealthier. Many of the undercover bosses were born into their wealth. Before they don the baseball caps and aprons of the people who work for them, they show us their toys — their sports cars, their mansions, their golf courses. “Undercover Boss” is supposed to make for feel-good television. It is supposed to be about those with power giving it up, albeit briefly, in order to empathize with and better serve those who don’t.

Although we might squint to soften the glare of privilege, poverty and inequality, we are not blinded by them. No, squinting does not blind. But it does distort our vision. It sharpens the image but constricts the aperture.

Foundations, like the one I work for, grant and invest money to solve problems like racism and poverty but few publicly acknowledge the role we played in creating and perpetuating those problems. Philanthropy as a sector is, in part, driven by the belief that the wealthy (and the institutions they create to carry on their personal missions after they die) have a responsibility and are uniquely positioned to create positive social change by harnessing their wealth and influence to leverage public money and create and promote good policy. But, what is not present in this somewhat sunny view of philanthropy is an analysis of the implications of building our most important systems and institutions, and also our built environment, at the pleasure of the elite few. What is left out is an honest analysis of power.

What effect does this leveraging and this influencing have on our democracy? How does philanthropy serve to reinforce power structures? What do we make of the evidence that inequality perpetuates itself by weakening public trust and undermining popular support for power and resource redistribution? What of the argument that philanthropy shrouds power in a veil of benevolence and thus allows it to render itself nearly invisible? The undercover boss disguises herself as the every-woman; the beneficiary of capitalism becomes its moderator.

Increasingly, foundations and wealthy individual-givers are orienting their work towards ‘improving’ how government works. The goal is to benefit the poor, the disenfranchised, the left-behind, the left-out. But, what effect do these, certainly well-intentioned, initiatives and partnerships have on government accountability and legitimacy? When government must write grant reports to philanthropic institutions, do they become beholden to the values of those institutions over the hopes and needs of the people they are elected to serve? To whom is philanthropy actually accountable and what gives the sector its legitimacy besides its wealth, which is a proxy for power? What if philanthropy is wrong about its assumptions? What disguise must it wear if it wants to, in good faith, ask the people it serves these questions? What if it does not want to hear the answers? I have been in many meetings and conferences in which we agonize over how to engage communities, how to better partner with them, how to be better listeners. I have agonized over these questions. But, what if it isn’t a matter of how we do these things but rather a matter of whether we are actually willing to do them? What if all this agonizing is a tool of avoidance? What if we don’t actually want to hear the answers? What if the answers are too damning to face? What if we don’t want to ask the questions because we don’t actually want to change?

In addition to a focus on improving government, there is a movement among foundations and individual givers towards increasing the pool and types of resources available to advance their missions. This has led to the proliferation of impact investing through which grants and influence are used as seeds for growing large sums of public money and private investments. In this model, it is expected that some profit will be created for the private investors, including high-net worth individuals, so that they can, to use the current de rigueur motto, do well while doing good. Impact investing has indeed expanded the possibilities for paying for important social services, infrastructure and systems that suffer in times of government fiscal constraint and dysfunction. But, should we be asking ourselves not only what good is being created from these efforts — to which my answer would be: a significant amount — but also what harm is being done? It is not just about how many more programs are getting funded but also which ones aren’t due to the interests of investors. In a capitalist society, profit is king. To what extent is this true of what some are calling philanthrocapitalism?

Today, private investors are advancing government the money to pay for programs to keep kids out of prison, with the expectation that government will pay them back if those programs are successful. In some cases, those same private investors also own shares in the prisons. In such a case, which value of the investor is more important: profit or largesse? Time will tell. In one episode of “Undercover Boss,” the COO of an electronics company wore colored contact lenses and a wig to visit the company’s manufacturing plants. What he found was that employees were struggling due to shift cuts, increases in health insurance costs and the loss of benefits including tuition reimbursement and extended leave. They were afraid to complain as they knew that their jobs might be shipped overseas. Touched by these experiences, the undercover COO paid off one of the employees’ student loans and gave her an allowance to finish school. He gave another some much needed extra vacation time, and a third got $5,000 to start a college fund for his kids. In short, the COO acted like a philanthropist, and in some ways he might have done better than some philanthropists: He listened to the needs of those he sought to help. But, what he did not, and perhaps could not, do under the system in which he operates — a capitalist system — is give his employees power. The end of the episode flashes forward four months. Despite the COO’s good intentions, things are not going well for the company’s employees. Jobs have been outsourced. The employee whose student loans were paid off was given a pink slip. “Unfortunately, there was no other choice we could make in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace,” the COO wrote on his Facebook page in response to the chorus of social media critics.

If a foundation exec were to write a criticism of the COO’s approach to helping his employees, the argument would probably be centered on the need to address systems rather than individuals. In my role as a knowledge and communications lead, I have written such criticisms. I believe such criticisms to be essentially true, yet they are, perhaps, not wholly truthful in that they only point outwards rather than also pointing inwards. Most foundations would say that we are seeking systemic change. From where I sit, this desire is genuine. But, when I look at the work we actually do as a sector, what I see is that we are often paying to change individual people’s behaviors or life chances. Sometimes, we do this at a great enough scale to reach towards the systemic with the tips of our outstretched fingers. We don’t want a program to help keep fifty kids out of prison, for example. We want a program to keep 500,000 kids out of prison. What is far less common are programs that address the reason that kids, and particularly kids of color, are going to prison in such great numbers in the first place. Or, if those reasons are addressed, we don’t dig far enough to get at the root causes. We stop at the next level down from the problem we’ve identified. If we can just keep more kids in school, we say, for example, fewer will end up in prison. But, the roots of America’s inequitable criminal justice system are a tangled mess of history, politics, social and economic policy and power. Addressing this issue or other inequities, such as in health and jobs requires more than changing people’s behaviors. Even if every single Black child stayed in school and succeeded academically, the inequities would persist. Right now, Black families are mortgaging their homes and their lives dry in order to pay for their kids to go to college. Even so, their kids often come out of college with their own debt in the form of student loans. Even so, a Black kid who graduates from Harvard is statistically as likely to get hired for a job as a White kid who went to a state school. Inequity perpetuates itself. It protects itself. Solving this problem will require a real reckoning with inherited wealth and inherited power. It will require sweeping reforms in our government and economic systems. It will require facing the truth that racism is a cause of socioeconomic inequity.

Yes, there are poor White people, and not all White people are privileged in the way many define the word, but all White people have access to White advantage. White advantage means that if you are White and poor and you pull yourself up by your bootstraps (as they say) and you get into Harvard, you will be more likely to be hired for a job than a White kid who went to a state school. You will also be more likely to be hired for a job than your Black classmate, even if your Black classmate got better grades than you. This is not because of the lack of mentoring or after-school programs in the Black community. This is because America was founded on land stolen through the genocide of Native Americans and built on the backs of slaves. Even if we believe, which I do not, that legalized racism ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1964, that still means that for the vast majority of our history, power — political, economic and social — was available only to White people.

It is common to hear people argue about whether or not it is time for Black people to get over slavery. Those who are pro Black people getting over it talk about slavery as though it was a moral failing of a few people a long time ago; a few people who have nothing to do with them. “I don’t own slaves,” they say, which is almost certainly true. But slavery was not just a moral failing. It was also an intentional capitalist policy. The fledgling country that was America needed the cheapest labor available. Slavery was identified as the most cost-effective solution. A caste system based on lies about Black people’s lack of humanity was developed to justify it. Recently, I was at a training in which the facilitator likened the argument that Black people should get over slavery to inviting people to play a Monopoly game three rounds in, after everything had already been bought. Yes, the new players got to play by the same rules as everyone else, but there was no way to catch up. And, in the real-life unfair Monopoly game that is America, the rules were also written by the people who were already in the game, the system was rigged in their favor, and the rule book was in a language that the new players did not understand.

We moved from slavery to Jim Crow to the current system of faux-colorblindness and mass incarceration. Throughout all of these transitions, the concentration of power in Whiteness has not shifted. In fact, it has only solidified. Yes, this can still be true even though we had a Black president. This can still be true because when power is threatened, it attempts to render itself invisible.

I bring up slavery to illustrate the inextricable ties between capitalism and inequity. I bring it up to argue that it is not enough to help even a hundred million people to change their behavior — to stay in school. I bring it up to argue that, addressing inequity will require more than just tinkering around the edges of capitalism. I bring it up to argue, as Einstein did, that we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. I bring up slavery in order to acknowledge the reality of just what it is that those of us who work for social change are up against. To not acknowledge it is fooling ourselves. To not acknowledge it is, perhaps, to answer the question of whether or not we are truly willing to change so that we can create change.

I am not making the case for dismantling America or capitalism as we know it, though based on what I know, a case certainly could be made. But, I tend towards pragmatism. What I am making a case for is a more honest analysis of the relationship between racism and capitalism, a more honest analysis of power. This is work that philanthropy, as a sector that grew out of and has been used to perpetuate and maintain inequity, must do. Perhaps it is possible to do well and do good, but we need to get beyond quippy mottos. We need to ask ourselves the difficult questions. We have to be willing to hear the damning answers. We will likely need to fundamentally change how we make decisions and how we work. We must be willing to relinquish our institutional privilege to make room for other voices: Voices of dissent and critique.

Addressing racial inequities is not something that is likely to happen in one generation. It will require building not just income in communities of color, but also wealth and the power that comes with it. It might require rigging the Monopoly game that is capitalism so that it benefits poor people, and especially people of color, in the same way it was rigged to benefit White people for generations. Would we be willing to do that? Would we be able to? What would it look like? Reparations? A giant fund to help drive home-ownership among people of color so that they can build wealth in the same way White Americans did through the G.I. Bill after WWII? I don’t know. It will take all of us to figure that out. But, only a dramatic shift in power will create real change. So, philanthropy: We need to talk about power. And, it can’t just be people of color who are driving the conversation. Sometimes advantage is not just about what you inherit or what you have, but also about the uncomfortable truths you don’t have to carry, on your back or in your skin.

Race Us: Movement Toward Closing the Gaps

Living Cities’ 2016 Annual Report collects stories about our work to close racial opportunity gaps over the past year. The report includes content from our staff, city partners and people in our networks.

Nadia Owusu

Written by

Memoir "Aftershocks" forthcoming @simonschuster| Associate Director, Racial Equity @Living_Cities|Words: @nytimes @ElectricLit @the_rumpus, @theatlasreview etc.

Race Us: Movement Toward Closing the Gaps

Living Cities’ 2016 Annual Report collects stories about our work to close racial opportunity gaps over the past year. The report includes content from our staff, city partners and people in our networks.