By Kellen MacBeth, individual donor and giving circle member
Last year, I attended an event at a local university where the author of a new book discussed the current model for American philanthropy: entrepreneurship/innovation leading to wealth accumulation leading to philanthropic giving.
I was struck as the author listed major philanthropists as trend-setters who, while accumulating their wealth, had contributed directly or indirectly to many of the same problems they would later give money to solve. After more research on the subject, I decided there had to be a better model.
Whereas it’s true that the capitalist system that defines the American economy has lifted large scores of people out of poverty and contributed to great technological innovations, it also has left millions of struggling people behind. Our philanthropic sector today relies on funding from many of the individuals and companies that, like the robber barons of yesterday, contribute to the environmental, social, and health problems it tries to fix. Can this system, which tacitly endorses the creation of problems as a key step in trying to fix them, truly work? I don’t think so.
Instead, we need foundations and nonprofits to work to reform the system and not just the problems it creates. We need a new model—beyond corporate social responsibility—wherein corporations are created, just like foundations, to help and not hurt people. Whereas the pursuit of profit and the influence of supply and demand will naturally remain a part of the new system, if we humanize our corporations, we can expect and receive more.
Imagine a world where the private sector must balance the health and well-being of workers, the impact of its products or services on the whole world, and profit—and the first two cannot be sacrificed for the last. Whereas these new corporations would not be perfect, they could do so much more to advance the well-being of mankind. Young people like myself would not have to choose whether to pursue wealth in the private sector or to do good in the public or nonprofit sectors, because all sectors would work for good. An economy integrated in its motivation to the common good would do much more than the, at times, adversarial one that exists.
It is great to see organizations like B Lab advocating for this cause, but I don’t think the rest of the philanthropic community can afford to stay on the sidelines. Real change will require a large, concerted effort to transform the system, and only then will we see lasting results. Creating this change will be incredibly difficult and may take a lot of time, but how can it not be worth it?
Kellen M. MacBeth founded GiveArlington, a giving circle for young professionals in Arlington, Virginia; is a board member for Arlington Thrive, a nonprofit offering same-day emergency financial assistance to county residents; and is an active volunteer, donor, and social justice advocate within the community. Follow Kellen on Twitter @Last_MacBeth.