Over the years, Brad Rose Consulting has provided evaluation services to philanthropies and community service organizations. These clients are dedicated to making the world a better place, often through philanthropic work with disadvantaged populations. While the work of philanthropies is generally perceived as laudable, there are a number of potential objections to the rise of philanthropic largesse.

In a BBC article, “The Problems with Charity” the authors survey a number of potential objections to, and liabilities associated with, charitable and philanthropic work. These include:
  • Charities often target symptoms, not causes- Charity helps the recipient with their problem, but it doesn’t do much to deal with the causes of that problem.
  • Charity may become a substitute for real justice- The idea that charity is wrong when it’s used to patch up the effects of the fundamental injustices that are built into the structure and values of a society.
  • Charity may not provide the best solution to a problem- Charitable giving may not be the most effective way of solving world poverty. Indeed, charitable giving may even distract from finding the best solution – which might involve a complex rethink of the way the world organizes its economic relationships, and large-scale government initiatives to change people’s conditions.
  • Charity may benefit the state rather than the needy- If the charity sector increases spending in an area also funded by government then there is a risk that government will choose to spend less in that area.
  • Charities are often accountable to the givers not the receivers- because the recipients of charity are often unorganized and the charity doesn’t know their individual identities, it’s often easier for charities to make their performance reports to the givers.

In his article “The Downside of Doing Good,” David Campbell examines recent critiques of philanthropy.  Following Anand Giridharadas (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) Campbell argues that “wealthy philanthropists and other prominent social change leaders often co-exist in a parallel universe (called) “MarketWorld,” where the best solutions to society’s problems require the same knowhow used in corporate boardrooms. That is because MarketWorld ignores the underlying causes for problems like poverty and hunger.

He further observes that efforts at educational reform funded by such philanthropic luminaries as Bill and Melinda Gates, via support for charter schools, often fail to understand the underlying inequalities that make schools resourced in vastly different ways. “As long as school systems are funded locally, based on property values, students in wealthy communities will have advantages over those residing in poorer ones. However, creating a more equal system to pay for schools would take tax dollars and advantages away from the rich. The wealthy would lose, and the disadvantaged would win. So it’s possible to see the nearly $500 million that billionaires and other rich people have pumped into charter schools and other education reform efforts over the past dozen years, as a way to dodge this problem.”

While philanthropy is likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future, the books and articles mentioned here underline some of the problematic assumptions that haunt philanthropic attempts to ameliorate conditions whose causes are often the deeper, underlying dynamics associated with the societies and economies these philanthropies seek to amend.


Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas

Just Giving Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, by Rob Reich

“The Problem with Philanthropy,”  David Sirota, In These Times, June 13, 2014

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