How We May Change the “Charitable-Industrial Complex”

I, like many others, read Peter Buffets article on charity in the New York Times this past week. I loved the piece but it left me wanting for more.  If the “Charitable-Industrial Complex” is the old story, then what is the new one and, how do we build it?  I wanted to offer a few ideas.

First, as long as philanthropy is about exchange of goods (water, wells, clothing, hospitals), things will never change.   I believe development should be about finding new ways to truly see one another.  When I worked at Acumen developing the leadership programs we put the majority of our effort into finding the right mix of people for the cohorts.  I remember our first class of East Africa Fellows.  We had two fellows that were born, raised, and still living in Mathare and Kibera (two slums in Kenya), one woman who was the granddaughter of the former President of Kenya, and one man who has just graduated from Harvard Business School.  While the Fellows had access to world-class leadership and business curriculum it was the interaction with people from completely different backgrounds on an equal level playing field that changed the way they looked at the world.  This cannot happen when a philanthropist visits a slum for a day, that system does not lend itself to truly seeing one another.  What might a new model look like?

Second, the new narrative exists it just needs to be written (This part is Africa centric but I figured this narrative needs the most work).  Let me give you a taste.  For the last three years a “Ted” for Africa has emerged called the African Leadership Network, bringing together the under 40 of the African continent to share ideas, foster economic development from entertainment to private equity, and redefine charity.  In addition, African diaspora and philanthropists are emerging as the leading voices for a new type of inclusive African growth.  A few of my favorites include:  Ozwald Boeteng and Chris Cleverly (Made in Africa Foundation) from Ghana, Uzo Iweala (Editor of Ventures Magazine) from Nigeria,  Sara Menker (Gro Ventures) from Ethiopia, Andrew Kuper (Leap Frog Investments) from South Africa, Gustav Praekelt (Praekelt Foundation) from South Africa, Dee Poku (Women Inspiration Enterprise) from Ghana, and Robbie Brozin (Nandos) from South Africa.  Trust me the list could go on.   The ultimate question for me is WHY are we still telling the old story?

If we want inclusive growth we must create mechanisms that allow the low income consumers to give real input.  The charity model is broken.  In our current model the charities real customer is the donor, not the low income person they are ultimately trying to serve. This creates misaligned incentives on all sides and forces charities to tell the savior story.  I would love to see philanthropists move beyond this model to innovate around ways that allow for direct reporting from low income person to philanthropist and also allow NGO’s to truly talk about their failures.  For example it would amazing to have aggregated information via text message on the value of a clinic in a slum sent directly to a philanthropists rather than being filtered through an NGO.

Can we really be inclusive elitists?  Often I find myself at an exclusive event for social entrepreneurs or development workers and wonder: who are these events really for?  We often justify these events because we want to make the philanthropists feel comfortable and not push them too far out of their comfort zone.  I would love to see more philanthropists speak up about this in an authentic way.  Are we really doing this for you?  Could we develop another model to showcase our work that is more inclusive and authentic?

Finally, I believe we live in a world of possibilities governed by archaic systems.  We have to move away from bandaid solutions to real system change I have seen a lot of “new” models emerge that are old ones masked with great marketing or a new way to utilize social media.  These models are not changing the  charitable industrial complex; they are keeping it alive.  I am not saying it is easy to create real systems change but if we want to see new models we have to push ourselves.  We must do the hard work to understand the leverage points because innovation for the sake of innovation or for personal gain will never yield the real transformation we need to build more inclusive societies and economic systems.

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4 thoughts on “How We May Change the “Charitable-Industrial Complex”

  1. Blair, i think your are great. Peter Buffet seems to think that his and other wealthy individual’s giving is just about being throwing money or that their giving is only because of guilt. I have seen less of that and the people with money that i know are looking for more…real partnership with many (they are taking a humanist orientation). Peter’s comments appear skeptical that a true partnership can be built between those with money and those that bring other resources to the table. That is the whole point of building a generosity network…that everyone brings unique resources to the table (time, network, money, creativity, etc.) to address the causes that no one person or entity can address alone. Many people from all parts of life joined together with us to end deaths from Malaria from corporations like Sumitomo Chemical, ExxonMobil to Foundations like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to individuals like Ray Chambers and Peter Chernin from Fox, like multi-lateral organizations such as the Global Fund, Department for International Development, USAID, to non-profits like Save the Children UK to UN agencies like UNICEF and US Agencies like The Peace Corps, small firms like A to Z funded by Acumen Fund and religious organizations like World Vision and many other individuals in each country to walked miles carrying bed nets. They all focused on a common goal, ending deaths from Malaria and have cut deaths in half in four years…amazing. We can do more collaborations across all income and stakeholder groups like these. Even the wealthy are looking for a more meaningful life and want to experience the joy of working with others accomplish something that they couldn’t do alone.

  2. Go Blair — I think you and Peter share the same essence of looking for systems that will work and leverage both the risk capital + abundance of dollars to make the world a better place.

    Having seen both you and Peter in action, I can say that you are both looking to break the paradigm in a way that will make “charitable” activities less window dressing and more a shifting of systems.

    As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal and IRC Director in Liberia– I have seen waste across the development spectrum particularly with multi-lateral and international UN agencies that warrants a ICC case; however, I believe that Jeff takes the right approach of focusing on the intersection of “good” intentions and “good” models.

    Let’s all get to it. When is your next Salon and you should invite Peter & Jennifer!?

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Blair. Peter’s article really touched on many of the elements that are preventing us from bringing systems change in the social sector in the world today. Agree with Jeffrey too that there are a lot more partnerships and collaboration that is happening that’s ultimately going to change how we tackle poverty alleviation and development work – but for most of the developing world, I would say the bulk of people and organizations with resources are still the ones who look at the world with traditional eyes. That’s why we need to continue asking these questions and articles like Peter’s continue to enlighten us with what needs improvement and hopefully more people answer back with solutions and what’s working.

  4. Blair-

    Thanks for offering your perspective on this.

    I think the point that shines through so clearly to me in your piece is consumer input. Nobody knows the needs of the “poor” better than the poor. The white savior from the west certainly doesn’t, and though I appreciate innovative problem solving that many of my friends are employing to help alliviate issues from the commercial sex trade to sanitation. This innovation must be paired with the humility to actually listen to what the consumers want.

    Innovation is limited by pride and ambition. But when humility leads innovation, there is a real chance for progress.

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