Blog / Family Philanthropy

Types of Philanthropic Harm

by Michael Moody
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 the 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 unintentionally also 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 of 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 Best is 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 a 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 cases) drug use among teens (hat tip to Sean Stannard-Stockton’s coverage of 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 response to this potential harm has shown both how “harm” is usually disputed, and how working to avoid or overcome it is the safest, noblest path.

Another classic claim of philanthropic harm is that giving creates a 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 Philanthropists’ 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.

This is an unusual word for a not-so-unusual phenomenon. Coined by Kenneth Goodpaster as 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, split, or re-framed?