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Types of Philanthropic Harm

There is a lot of discussion these days about the need to pay more attention to the failures of philanthropy, to share those failures openly and learn from them, to improve the inefficiencies in the system and increase trust.  Michael Remaley gives a terrific summary of that discussion related to foundation failure here.  There is also a lot of talk about the limits of philanthropy and, unfortunately, about the abuse of philanthropy.

I’m one who thinks we can talk too much about such things, if it overshadows the predominance of good done versus harm.  But I too admit this is a healthy conversation to have.

In a recent book chapter, I tried to help structure this conversation a bit by suggesting that we can apply the Hippocratic Oath of “seek to do good but do no harm” to philanthropy—to those who try to heal society, like doctors heal people.  I proposed an initial list of the ways that philanthropy might violate the Oath and “do harm” instead of good.

I’m reproducing that list here in the hopes that it will spark additions, edits, and further reflection that will help to avoid these ways of doing potential harm.

While most of these types of philanthropic harm are defined by the cause of potential harm, implicit in each are consequences of the harm as well.  Also, while a couple of these result from intentional harm, most are ways in which philanthropists seeking to do good might unintentionallyalso do bad.

Malfeasance, Corruption, Fraud:  This is the most blatant form of harm and can take all too many forms, from misappropriation of donated funds to hoarding food donated to Haitian earthquake victims and selling it for profit.  Some cases of very high fundraising costs could fit in this category, but not all.

Lack of Transparency: This sort of harm can involve secrecy that hides the real connections or reasons behind philanthropic acts, non-disclosure of various sorts, a lack in inclusion in decision processes that fails to account for certain voices, etc.

Diversion of Resources: This is harm by omission and opportunity cost, by diverting scarce resources (time, talent, treasure) from a more effective or efficient solution, a more pressing or widespread need, or a more “deserving” recipient.  The controversial, much-debated National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) report, Criteria for Philanthropy at its Bestis an example of this sort of harm claim.  Others claim that certain established programs become magnets for more and more giving, while fledgling organizations with amazing early success struggle to attract support.

Short-term Band-Aids:  This classic form of philanthropic harm is when interventions merely address the symptoms of a problem, while ignoring the persistent and systemic causes and more permanent solutions.  We all know the argument about—and many examples of—providing services to the downstream victims instead of advocating for system change upstream.

Faulty or Inefficient Strategy:  The two previous types can both be seen as variations of a more general category of potential harm, when a philanthropist’s faulty strategy causes well-meaning efforts to fail—or, at least, to be less effective or efficient than they could be.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, after looking at evaluations of their education grants, decided to shift their giving to focus on different solutions that held greater promise.  Other foundations might decide they haven’t given large enough grants, or might cause harm by abandoning a solution before it has a chance to work, or might have a “theory of change” that ignores a major cause of the problem, and so on.

Faulty or Inefficient Implementation:  Sometimes the negative consequences of philanthropy come from faulty implementation of the strategy.  This has long been a critique made of international humanitarian and development organizations, that they fail to get resources to those in need because of lack of coordination, bureaucratic bottlenecks, ineffective systems of information sharing, or failure to adapt to changing circumstances.  Some who say that a nonprofit spends too much on “operations” or “overhead” are making this claim of harm by inefficiency.

Lack of Measurable Impact:  This is a type of potential harm that concerns many thought leaders in the philanthropic field at the moment.  The issue here is one of uncertainty about whether good or harm is resulting from a philanthropic action.  A community’s cherished youth literacy program might be producing only temporary benefits for the kids, or it might be creating major long-term positive outcomes.  But without impact measures, the argument goes, we won’t know if we’re doing good, not so much good, or even harm.  A related problem is when measures of impact exist but are ignored, as seems to have happened with evidence that the popular DARE program doesn’t prevent (and might even increase in some case) drug use among teens (hat tip to Sean Stannard-Stockton’s coverageof this example).

Unintended Consequences:  There are myriad reasons why good intentions can lead to unexpected bad outcomes, and the likelihood of this increases as problems and solutions become more complex. In Great Britain the popular charity Oxfam has solicited used book donations and opened a number of local bookstores to generate revenue for their programs, but according to some for-profit secondhand booksellers these fundraising efforts have hurt their business.  Oxfam’s responseto this potential harm has shown both how “harm” is usually disputed, and how working to avoid or overcome it is the safest, noblest path.

Dependency:  Another classic claim of philanthropic harm is that giving creates dependency on the part of recipients and discourages self-reliance.  This view persists today in arguments that anti-poverty nonprofits should focus on job skills training instead of grocery vouchers, or arguments for microfinance loans instead of grant “handouts.”

* Reinforcing Status Quo:  Many observers of philanthropy argue that it can, in both subtle and obvious ways, perpetuate dominant power relations, and/or neglect to support truly disadvantaged groups or groups that seek more systemic social change.  Critics of the “enlightened self-interest” of corporative giving sometimes make this claim.  As do those, like NCRP, who argue that institutional philanthropy supports causes that serve the elite instead of finding social justice nonprofits, communities of color, and so on.

* Paternalism and Cultural Insensitivity:  This is another classic criticism of philanthropic interventions in the lives of vulnerable people.  “Do-gooders” have long been charged with adopting a condescending, paternalistic attitude, imposing their own values instead of being sensitive to the values and situation of those they seek to help.  This sort of argument was made against Victorian-era social reformers and continues today, for instance, in some of the more biting critiques of Teach for America corps members.

* Favoring Philanthropist’s Needs over Recipients:  Many people consider it harmful when philanthropy seems overly driven by the donor’s interests and needs.  The uproar caused by Leona Helmsley giving billions to help dogs is perhaps the most infamous example here.  Foundations might give only to their trustee’s pet organizations, or to groups that provide easy-to-see results, rather than doing the work to find out which programs the community really needs or which ones produce more long-term or hard-to-measure outcomes.  Or too much attention can be paid to helping donors have a good giving experience (e.g., attending a gala, getting an expensive recognition gift) or helping them feel good about themselves.

* Teleopathy:  This is an unusual word for a not-so-unusual phenomenon.  Coined by Kenneth Goodpasteras the “unbalanced pursuit of objectives” in an organization, teleopathy can occur in philanthropic organizations when people lose sight of the group’s mission as the primary goal; when they let other concerns (e.g., organizational politics, career goals) determine their actions.  This is another place to categorize many of the concerns over unacceptable overhead or fundraising “ratios” in nonprofits.

* Risks for Philanthropists: Of course, harm can also come to the philanthropists themselves as a result of their interventions for good.  The risks of harm can be minor, as with the everyday Good Samaritans stopping along the road to help, or extraordinary, as with Holocaust rescuers or searchers clamoring into collapsed buildings after an earthquake.  The potential harm can also be emotional, such as the “burnout” affecting direct service volunteers, or even social and political, such as the harms of publicity that certain anonymous donors try to avoid.

So that is the initial list I came up with.  Can you think of others to add?  Do some of these need to be combined, or split, or reframed?

After this article went to press I thought of another one, a classic claim of harm that I should have included:  “tainted money.”  This is, of course, the claim that harm is done not by how philanthropic dollars are spent, but by how they were earned.  The controversy over how someone made the money that they later decided to give to a good cause is said, in this view, to taint the good being done.  This is harm by association, if you will.

I also wonder where in this list we might fit some of the other criticisms of philanthropy that we hear.  For instance, where would we fit the critiques of “embedded giving” or “cause-related marketing” (e.g., attaching a cause to a consumer purchase, like donations to charity every time you use your Visa card)?

This list surely needs a lot of work.  But I hope it can help us think about, and therefore avoid, philanthropic harm.

-Michael Moody

Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy

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Comments(6)

  1. Reply
    Geri Stengel says

    This is a great list for furthering the conversation! Each of the items on your list is worthy of discussion. I have one caution and one addition to the list. The caution is that short-term BandAid effects may be necessary in some cases: disaster response, homelessness. Of course, necessary short-term efforts — overnight shelter — must be followed/accompanied by longer-term solutions — transitional services and housing. To your list, I’d add failure to include recipients in designing solutions. Those who need services often have cultural and social structures that can impede or promote the effectiveness of services. If you don’t ask and listen to the response, you may well lose opportunities to do good and may do harm by disrupting existing support systems.

  2. Reply
    Anonymous says

    This is a great list for furthering the conversation! Each of the items on your list is worthy of discussion. I have one caution and one addition to the list. The caution is that short-term BandAid effects may be necessary in some cases: disaster response, homelessness. Of course, necessary short-term efforts — overnight shelter — must be followed/accompanied by longer-term solutions — transitional services and housing. To your list, I’d add failure to include recipients in designing solutions. Those who need services often have cultural and social structures that can impede or promote the effectiveness of services. If you don’t ask and listen to the response, you may well lose opportunities to do good and may do harm by disrupting existing support systems.

  3. Reply
    Michael Moody says

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Geri. I could not agree more on the need for Band Aids in some cases. I really cringe when I see well-meaning commentators argue against emergency assistance, usually from some form of a cost-effectiveness or efficiency angle. Of course our dollars will do more long-term good when spent on development instead of relief, but to me not providing relief is sometimes not an option. Save the child from drowning, then worry about improving her school.Also, perhaps we could incorporate your suggested addition into the “lack of transparency” category? I mention the issue of inclusiveness of voice there, but your point about the voice of recipients/beneficiaries needs to be in there too.

  4. Reply
    Nikki Gler says

    There’s one thing that I often think about in my work in philanthropy that might deserve a spot on this list. It relates to an idea I’ve heard presented by the Nonprofit Finance Fund a number of times regarding the role of funders as “builders” vs. “buyers” – builders of organizations or buyers of programs (generally). The harm here would come when funders don’t recognize where in the organizational lifecycle a potential grantee is and opt to buy vs. build. I’ve seen this happen a few times. The funder comes in and says, “We want you to do X and we’ll give you funds to do it.” But that organization isn’t quite there yet so they poorly implement project X and don’t spend any time ensuring their organization is functioning at a high level. Then, when that project ends, they realize that they hired all the wrong people, built the wrong systems and pigeon-holed themselves into a subject area that may not be their sweet spot.

  5. Reply
    Anonymous says

    There’s one thing that I often think about in my work in philanthropy that might deserve a spot on this list. It relates to an idea I’ve heard presented by the Nonprofit Finance Fund a number of times regarding the role of funders as “builders” vs. “buyers” – builders of organizations or buyers of programs (generally). The harm here would come when funders don’t recognize where in the organizational lifecycle a potential grantee is and opt to buy vs. build. I’ve seen this happen a few times. The funder comes in and says, “We want you to do X and we’ll give you funds to do it.” But that organization isn’t quite there yet so they poorly implement project X and don’t spend any time ensuring their organization is functioning at a high level. Then, when that project ends, they realize that they hired all the wrong people, built the wrong systems and pigeon-holed themselves into a subject area that may not be their sweet spot.

  6. Reply
    Michael Moody says

    That’s an interesting case, Nikki, and rings true to situations I’m sure many of us have witnessed. It seems to have elements of some of the types in the list, like faulty strategy or faulty implementation or even favoring the philanthropist’s (foundation’s) needs. But it cuts across or combines them and might warrant a type all its own. A good reminder that harm situations are rarely simple manifestations of one sort of problem.

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