Reflections on Moving from Generosity to Justice

February 10, 2020
Hilary Pearson

Philanthropy is always about generosity. But should it and must it also be about justice? This is the question asked by Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, in his book From Generosity To Justice (2019). Walker was inspired to write this thoughtful book (and create an online forum) by his reflections on Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth. But he also notes the provocation of Anand Ghiridaradas’s comment that “generosity is not a substitute for justice”. Ghiridaradas challenges the philanthropy of the wealthy as the use of generosity to obscure one’s complicity in injustice. Walker counters that it’s a continuum rather than a binary contrast between generosity and justice. The challenge he poses to himself and to all philanthropists is framed in this way: “if there’s a continuum between generosity and justice, how do we all push our work closer to the latter?”

I had two main reflections on this question, as I finished Walker’s book.  First, how does one define justice?  It’s not simply the opposite of injustice. Walker defines pushing towards justice broadly as the goal of changing inequality, or addressing and changing “systemic issues, not just their symptoms”. He talks about working towards “transforming our economy, our society and our government into structures that work for more people and create equal opportunity for all….in other words…. sustainable, structural change to benefit entire communities”. This is aspirational and challenging. It’s an important goal that should galvanize foundations to reconsider their approaches and practices.

But before moving to Walker’s suggested actions, should we pause and consider more deeply? What kind of inequality are we talking about? What are the causes of inequality? And how does one achieve consensus on changing inequality? In a fascinating recent discussion of this topic in the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman writes that the concept of equality is a blurry one. While many agree that we live in an unequal society, we don’t agree on how to resolve it.  “We’ve diagnosed the disease. Why can’t we agree on a cure?” Rothman discusses the views of philosophers and economists who have attempted it but as he notes, there are many different ways of achieving equality (or greater justice): equality of resources, equality of access, procedural equality, representational equality. People can be equal and unequal at the same time. We are all members of the human race, and therefore we are all fundamentally or “deeply” equal, even if we have unequal allotments of talent, beauty or luck. Yet how should society address these unequal allotments? Through the provision of safety nets? Through leveling the playing field? Rothman quotes the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson who calls this “luck egalitarianism”. But who decides whether one suffers from bad luck or from poor choices? And what if this approach is condescending to those who suffer from either? How do we know what justice we seek?

Rothman captures the multifaceted definition of justice demonstrated in a 2006 book, Elements of Justice, by philosopher David Schmidtz. “It’s easy to imagine justice as a unitary thing—a single, imposing building, a Supreme Court. But it’s more like a collection of buildings, each with its own function. In the neighbourhood of justice, Schmidtz identifies four structures: equality, desert, reciprocity, and need. We consult these in different contexts, to solve different kinds of problems….in real life, we amble around the neighbourhood of justice.” For example, on a team, players are treated equally as part of a common enterprise, deployed according to talent (their desert), coached according to their differing needs, and helped by each other reciprocally. Justice is served, in many ways.

This brings an important further nuance to Walker’s discussion of how philanthropy can move on the continuum from generosity to justice, it’s not just about justice in the abstract but justice in the specific and in context.

My second reflection is about how Walker suggests that we move away from the comfortable (generosity) to the uncomfortable (justice). Walker is responding, as the Ford Foundation under his leadership has responded, to the inequalities that shape relationships between donors and grantees. Walker is clear about what must be done to change the internal systems and practices of foundations: Question your privilege. Question your ignorance and your bias. Question your ego. In each case, he is asking us to push harder to challenge our ways of seeing. He points out that we all have privilege to some degree, be it birth, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, family, physical ability, family, education or income. Privileges can intersect, compound or in fact take away from each other. It is important to be aware and to work on feeling gratitude rather than entitlement. For those with no lived experience of an issue, and who may be ignorant or biased because of their ignorance, the solution is to go and see….be with others and listen to them. Questioning one’s ego also means decentering a personal or institutional agenda. No one has the best solution, the only silver bullet to solve a problem. So, bring more diverse points of view to your decision-making, listen and learn, engage your senses by practicing proximity, turn your senses into insights by extending empathy.

All important and valuable suggestions, which Walker expands on at length in his book. Walker is a leader in the legacy foundation world of larger American foundations, and he has acted on his prescriptions. And others are also providing reflections and resources on how to reimagine the funder-grantee relationship along these lines. See the Trust-Based Philanthropy ProjectRecent guides from PFC on gender and diversity, equity and inclusion are providing great Canadian models.

My second reflection is more sobering. Looking at the current landscape, and the growing popular cynicism and lack of trust in institutions, it could well be that foundations are accused of doing too little too late in “checking their privilege”. And foundations in both the United States and Canada can be criticized for their risk aversion and their reluctance to act more directly either as advocates or as funders of social movements focused on changing systems. Neutral or evidence-based solutions to problems of inequality won’t be enough. As David Callahan said two years ago, “many foundations seemed trapped in a dated mindset about how change happens and how to have impact. They haven’t wrapped their heads around key realities of our age, like the fall of public trust in institutions and elites, and rising polarization and populism. In this environment, expertise just doesn’t seem to matter all that much. What’s moving change right now are social movements, ideology and tribal loyalties.” What can foundations do to invest more in these movements, build platforms to counter “fake news” and support the institutions and networks that promote the democracy of ideas and policies for greater justice? Walker exhorts us to have courage. And to speak up. The forum he has created features many philanthropic voices. Let’s hear from more Canadian voices too.

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