Crowdsourcing versus Philanthropy

nextgov-medium New Orleans      In the United States, this is supposedly the season for giving.  Traditionally that has meant that retail establishments go wild trying to seduce all of us into local stores, big malls, mail order deliveries, and, increasingly, online shopping.  On the hope for a generosity “rub off,” the season has also become the time when direct mail appeals outnumber holiday greeting cards for many of us, and, as work slows down and people take vacations for the holidays, our email in-boxes are more stuffed with appeals for support than our stockings ever were.   Many of us do what we can, both every day, when we “give at the office” so to speak through our daily labor, and in trying to throw a few dollars here and there to groups we keep on our personal lists.

            In the spirit of the season, The New York Times ran an op-ed from Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.  Despite all reports and evidence to the contrary that most of philanthropy has become extremely directed and transactional, Walker went old school, and spoke to the better side of philanthropy’s nature, saying:

We, as foundations and individuals, should fund people, their ideas and organizations that are capable of addressing deep-rooted injustice. We should ensure that the voices of those most affected by injustice — women, racial minorities, the poor, religious and ethnic minorities and L.G.B.T. individuals — help decide where and what philanthropy puts money behind, not in simply receiving whatever philanthropy decides to give them.  

Honestly, I’m not sure how many foundations and philanthropists still walk that walk, including the Ford Foundation, but at least Walker has not forgotten how to talk the right talk, and that’s something to be thankful for anyway!

            Besides the rich and their institutions become increasingly transactional, I also have the feeling that neoliberalism of a sort has also infected “giving” with the explosion of “crowdsourcing.”  Not able to depend on philanthropy or the rich and pretend any longer that they will carry the weight their tax exemptions allow them or that banks make smaller loans anymore, crowdsourcing is essentially a transfer of many funding prospects to friends, family, and fellow travelers, much like our social services safety net as well.  The Wall Street Journal recently trumpeted the fact that the microfinancing and lending service, Kiva, in trying to develop a more effective business model in the USA, has added a crowdsourcing requirement so that prospective borrowers would prove they have “skin in the game” before getting a loan.  They also claim that with friends and family on the hook, the payment rate is 92%.

            This may be the giving season, and as Ford’s Walker says, we need to “fund people, ideas and organizations,” but with the infection of neoliberalism in all facets of modern life and social fabric, part of the message continues to be that it’s not about justice, as Walker argues, but too much about “just us.”

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