Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Book Reviews

Unchartitable Giving

James K.A. Smith

Bill Gates visits a health center in Ghana, 2013; AFP/Pius Utomi Ekpei/Getty Images.

Politics would be a hell of a good business if it weren’t for the goddamned people,” grumbled Richard Nixon to young attorney John Sears. Sadly, this quip came to mind while I was absorbing Jeremy Beer’s analysis of contemporary philanthropy. One could imagine similar carping from the boardrooms of our leading “charitable” foundations. Beer’s brief in this taut little book is illustrated by a stark anecdote: Even though it sits on $42 billion in resources, and despite the fact that homelessness is one of its strategic areas of concern, the Gates Foundation will not provide direct assistance to any of the displaced people sleeping outside its $500 million Seattle headquarters. Instead, the foundation’s resources are entirely devoted to “upstream” systemic problems. Don’t come to the Gates Foundation looking for alms. And don’t expect charity from this foundation. Philanthropy is about metrics, not mercy.

Beer, a philanthropy consultant and president of the American Ideas Institute, cites this as one of the “absurdities” of modern philanthropy—a word whose etymology suggests “love of mankind”—that is more in love with problem solving than with people, more invested in “high modernist ideology” than in particular human beings. It brings to mind an ancient insight into disordered love. Looking back on his younger self in the Confessions, Saint Augustine recognized this perennial phenomenon: “I was in love with love.” Similarly, contemporary philanthropy seems more enamored of a generic anthropos than of the flesh-and-blood poor we encounter face-to-face. Indeed, twenty-first-century philanthropy seems allergic to charity.

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