Philanthropy is dead

by Harrow, J. and T. Jung (2011), Public Management Review (PMR) 13(8): 1047-1056

Guest Contributor: Dr Wendy Scaife, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies

This special Public Management Review issue looks at how philanthropy interacts with public policy and also questions who is accountable to whom for what.

Harrow and Jung’s editorial introduces some key issues in this philanthropy/government relationship, as a taster to this edition’s seven articles. They observe that philanthropy’s role in relation to government is variously ‘stop-gap, stakeholder, standard-bearer, and stooge’!

Harrow and Jung also point to a worldwide trend that we are seeing locally: renewed government interest in philanthropy in times of economic downturn and austerity. Talked about as ‘enchantment with philanthropy’ and even ‘courting’, they report that philanthropy is being seen as some kind of white knight in ‘post-recession’ western societies, particularly the U.K. with its Big Society agenda. Their provocative title ‘Philanthropy is Dead; Long Live Philanthropy’ refers to this see-saw motion between philanthropy and the welfare state and the current tip back towards high expectations on philanthropy.

This idea of philanthropy stepping in to fill government’s shoes where regimes are unable or unwilling to fulfill society’s needs comes under scrutiny: does post-GFC philanthropy in fact have the resources to do what governments and societies are expecting of it? Does it want to? Is this simply government’s vision, not that of a cussedly autonomous philanthropy sector? These writers reinforce that this independence of action, the freedom to walk away from or stay with particular directions is the key point of philanthropy/government difference.

Harrow and Jung pose the related 64 billion dollar questions:

‘To whom is philanthropy accountable, and who holds it accountable?’ Government policies are usually debated (at least in theory). But who contests the views of the Gates Foundation’s three board members (Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet)? Their US$3.8b budget is just a tad smaller than the World Health Organisation, controlled by and answerable to 193 member countries.

In foundations of non-Gatesian proportions too, Jung and Harrow see this independence characterising philanthropy, giving it leadership influence and its public fascination. They raise the role of philanthropy in holding government to account, not vice-versa.

The role of philanthropy-state partnerships is canvassed, interestingly in the area of schools, which should resonate in Australia today. The message is to be wary of partnership rhetoric and to focus on the social provision problem more than the partnership actors.

This editorial and the special issue are not easy reading – many fifty-cent words where five cent ones would do. But the depth of thinking in each article makes it worth the time and brain investment. These articles question the dogma. We need that.

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