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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Philanthropic Confusion, Hackers and Hedgers versus Ford – Part II

photo_62847_landscape_650x433Missoula     We might as well concede that watching the rich spend their money is a fool’s errand. There’s just no figuring, and listening to what they say about it all just increases the confusion. Recently we talked about the argument for giving more money globally and philosopher Paul Singer’s argument that morally we need to step up the pace more to help the people in greatest need regardless of the fact that they live in worlds apart and to most Americans, worlds unknown.

How about some cases in point?

The Wall Street Journal recently gave over two pages of its paper to Sean Parker to expound, often unintelligibly and almost always naively, various pontifications about something he called “hacker philanthropy.” Parker is the billionaire techie who was a co-founder of Napster, the digital music stealing program, an early backer of Facebook, and other Silicon Valley projects. Perhaps surprisingly, I generally have positive feelings for Parker, probably because he seemed one of the few admirable characters in the movie called Facebook, but this article reminded me that, “hey, that was a movie, Wade!” Part of his argument is unassailable when he says that it is important to give “early” and give “quickly.” I’m even willing to give him some points for taking some swipes at the bureaucracies of big foundations, but after that it was hard to find “any there, there” in his arguments. He wants to measure. He wants to focus on problems that can be solved. He wants to pretend that philanthropy follows market logic. Dude, markets don’t even follow “market logic,” anymore! And, no, my friend, being wrong is NOT “as valuable as being right!” Peoples’ lives and communities may be at stake. It may be fine to “get political,” as he argues, but reading his remarks, one gets the frightening feeling that he really doesn’t see any difference between left, right, and center, Soros, the Kochs, or Bloomberg. He believes the problem for the “hacker elite,” which I assume just means the super-rich-techies he sees as his peers, rather than the hundreds of thousands of working stiffs in Silicon Valley is “scale,” because he thinks that’s what he and his fellows are used to though he quickly concedes they, like the robber barons of the past, are driven by wanting to “make a lasting contribution” and of course they also have to “find satisfaction in doing so.” Finding a clear path through this blah, blah, blah maze, he has announced that he is giving $600 million to the new Parker Foundation and is going to take on….big drum roll…malaria? How novel. Get in line.

One could almost read this hacker philanthropy thing as satire if it wasn’t so presumptuous and pompous, which made it even more delicious to read Michael Lewis, the bestselling author of books on everything from Wall Street excess to major league baseball and college football and his amazing, takedown piece of hedge fund hog, Stephen Schwartzman in the New York Times recently. Lewis pretended to be writing a letter from the Harvard University investment managers to the Harvard admissions department begging them to use different standards of admission for the self-proclaimed and self-entitled wannabes like Schwartzman, who famously gave a gazillion recently to Yale and poked Harvard in the eye while doing so because they had not accepted him in their school when he was living high school. Ouch, that was a philanthropy “shaming” if there ever was one and is sui generis in its rarity.

Meanwhile the Ford Foundation, once the largest foundation in the US and still one of those big boys scorned by Parker for its bureaucracy and probably its New York City address announced that it was turning over a new leaf and would rejigger all of its funding and programs to achieving economic equality given the crisis in our times between the 99% and the 1%. Few details are currently available nor is there a clear timeline for this sudden transition.

Hope springs eternal, but I wouldn’t hold my breath about any of this. I’m even afraid that Lewis may be right that the Harvard administrators are debating how they let a big fish get away, even while so many little fish are being swept out to sea.

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Anonymous Music – The Anonymous Occupation Alliance (AOA)

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