Not too long ago, a disgruntled aid worker took to The Guardian to air some grievances about the unwillingness or inability of international humanitarian organizations to properly measure the effectiveness of their work.
“NGOs that are unable or unwilling to provide strong evidence of the impact they are having are, at best, a considerable waste of time and money,” the anonymous aid worker wrote. “What seems a lot more certain is that many NGOs are continuing to provide noble career paths and selfless volunteer placements for the more fortunate, while simultaneously servicing the local population with untested and meagre programmes.”
This disgruntled aid worker is not alone. Calls for more robust, transparent measurement of nonprofit effectiveness have become ubiquitous in recent years, as have efforts to publicly shame those organizations that appear to be lagging behind.
I’ll admit that on the whole, I’ve been sympathetic to this trend. After all, our resources are limited. Why wouldn’t we want assurances that our money is being put to good use? But now I’m rethinking all of that. Okay, not all of it, but a lot of it. I’m rethinking the telos – the ultimate aim – of giving. And I’m reconsidering my assumptions about what successful giving looks like, if that’s even something that should concern us.
And for this you can blame Jeremy Beer, whose book The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity is provocative and unsettling in all the right ways. Beer – a founding partner at American Philanthropic, the founding editor of Front Porch Republic, and president of the American Ideas Institute – traces the history of “philanthropy” as a framework distinct from caritas, particularly as Christians throughout history have understood it.
While many of us use the terms philanthropy and charity interchangeably, Beer argues the difference between these two terms represents a seismic shift that has led us from local, personal almsgiving to global, technocratic efforts to change the world:
Philanthropy is not simply charity brought to scale. It is not simply institutionalized or even professionalized charity. From a theoretical standpoint, the most important difference between philanthropy and charity — the truly revolutionary difference — is that the logic of philanthropy invites us to see voluntary giving within a primarily technological and global rather than theological and local framework.
Of course, philanthropy can be “effective” at doing what it’s designed to do. Indeed, to take just one recent example, efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease in Africa and Asia – a disease that once plagued 3.5 million people a year – have reportedly been 99.99% effective. A new exhibition that highlights this massive accomplishment is now on view at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.
Beer doesn’t deny philanthropy’s effectiveness. But he points out that “traditional charity’s ends are quite different from its own.” Charity, he continues, “is uniquely associated with certain goods— we might call them personalist goods— that are largely unavailable to or tend to be undermined by philanthropy on its own terms, and that insofar as we value those goods, we must look to inject the logic of charity into the modern practice of philanthropy.”
One point that Beer drives home time and again is that philanthropy, for all its accomplishments, has an inherent tendency to overlook actual people and places – two considerations that have always been central to charity. In one memorable passage, he relates a cringeworthy example of philanthropy’s insistence on “thinking big”:
When a spokeswoman for the $37 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was asked why the foundation chose not to assist dozens of homeless sleeping outside its $500 million Seattle headquarters, despite having made the issue of homelessness one of its focus areas, she replied,“We’re trying to move upstream to a systems level to either prevent family homelessness before it happens or to end it as soon as possible after it happens.”
Despite all the good that the Gates Foundation has done and continues to do throughout the country and around the world, this isolated incident illustrates a larger problem inherent to an approach that can render one blind to the needs of our most immediate neighbors.
Philanthrolocalism is Beer’s “halfway tongue-in-cheek” term for a proposed alternative that “creatively combines the best of the charitable and philanthropic traditions”:
Philanthrolocalism offers an alternative philosophical foundation and justification for individuals’ and institutions’ charitable practices. It posits that the primary purpose of philanthropy ought to be to increase opportunities for and strengthen the possibilities of authentic human communion. It happily draws upon the practical and technological advances of the philanthropic tradition, but it subordinates the technological metaphysics of that tradition to the personalist metaphysics, if not the explicit theology, of the Jewish and Christian charitable tradition. That is, it directs its gaze at particular humans embodied in particular places at particular times rather than at humanity, the nation, the global community, or any other agglomeration of humans in the abstract. It therefore has a strong bias toward localism. The philanthrolocalist concern is to promote human flourishing within the local community, not to “change the world” through the technologies of social entrepreneurship.
You’ll need to read the book for yourself to digest all the implications of philanthrolocalism, and I encourage you to do so. As I said, the book is provocative in all the right ways, and it warrants serious consideration. At the same time, I do have at least two misgivings with Beer’s proposed alternative.
First, while I won’t dispute the idea that our giving should always have a local dimension, and while I absolutely agree with the importance of directing our giving to actual people and places in the context of human relationships, I can’t follow Beer’s argument to what seems to be a logical conclusion – that a person in Phoenix really shouldn’t care very much about men, women, and children in, say, a slum in Guatemala City.
Unlike the prevailing model of philanthropy, with its deep-seated “prejudice against rootedness,” Beer argues that “we have a primary responsibility to look after that which is closest to us.” Fair enough. I too believe we have a special obligation to care for those whose lives, in God’s mysterious providence, have been intertwined with our own. But what should I do as one whose roots aren’t in a single place? Is it not possible to be a philanthrolocalist in one’s neighborhood and city while also caring deeply about people who are near and dear to us in another place?
The second misgiving has to do with theology. Citing a range of voices from the early centuries of the Church, Beer argues that unlike contemporary views among Protestants, charity was seen to have actual salvific merit (more on that here) – a belief still taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps most jarring in this, the five-hundredth year of the Reformation, are these words from Pope Leo the Great: “For although a person be full of faith, and chaste, and sober, and adorned with other still greater decorations, yet if he is not merciful, he cannot deserve mercy.”
My fellow Protestants will likely join me in protesting that there’s no such thing as a person deserving of mercy. We were all taught that grace is getting what we don’t deserve, and that mercy is not getting what we do. We’ve all committed it to memory, haven’t we: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
I’m not ready to abandon those core beliefs. But I’m also mindful that Pope Leo knew his Bible, just as Beer does. Those of us whose theology leads us to de-emphasize works would do well, at the very least, to meditate on the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25) and to reckon with the biblical teachings that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17) but that “love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).
Despite these two misgivings – which are not insignificant – I absolutely recommend the careful reading of this book. If nothing else, each of us would do well to ask ourselves these questions in deciding how to give and whom to serve:
Will this gift help to strengthen human communion? Does it witness to the reality of human communion – of the truth that we are not our own? Does it help me come into a closer personal encounter with others, or does it act only as a substitute for doing so? Will it contribute to the building of local community that is so necessary for human flourishing? Does it express gratitude to a community to whom I owe, in part, my being?
Though I may not be ready to embrace philanthrolocalism in precisely the way Beer envisions it, I am nonetheless committed to joining him and countless Christians, through time and space, in striving for a practice of charity, rooted in love, that is characterized by “a deeply personal encounter” with my neighbor and with Christ himself.