In responding to a post I wrote about the 2011 Council on Foundations Conference, a young commentator wrote:
I am curious as to why you think neither young people nor technology will be what changes philanthropy. It is sometimes said that foundations have not changed much culturally in the last 40 years. So I don’t think you’re too far off base with your prediction. If it can’t be young people or technology to change it, what will it be?
I offer the following response, hoping others will offer their own thoughts:
The forces that are shaping you, as a young person in philanthropy, are not much different from those that shape young people in other fields. You learn the ropes by copying your elders, who aped their elders before them. You unconsciously absorb philanthropy’s culture (largely white and middle class) and its norms. You learn quickly that the squeaky wheel gets the grief, that asking too many unsettling questions is the sign of a greenhorn, a person who has not properly internalized the pieties and myths that govern so much of our work as grantmakers. You might, if you’re unlucky, succumb to careerism, getting along in order to ascend quickly in our guild of philanthropic middle men.
As for technology: since the establishment of the first foundation, we’ve had the advent of the telephone, the photocopier, the fax machine, the word processor, the mobile phone, the Internet, and e-mail, not to mention other technological marvels. Yet the middle class and the poor in this country have lost ground over the past several decades; we continue to befoul our planet and wage undeclared wars to protect our patterns of consumption; LGBT people still face legal discrimination; etc. etc. I’ve argued elsewhere that if we were to examine the histories of some of the great social advances in our country—the winning of women’s suffrage, the ending of Jim Crow—we’d see that foundations had played a minor role at best, in spite of the resources, independence, and power available to them. I think the same kind of argument applies to the role played by new technologies in these significant social changes.
Philanthropy will change, whatever we do or fail to do. But I believe it will only evolve into an engine of transformation by the efforts of people—young and old—who are honest about the gap between its aspirations and its outcomes, and who offer an alternative to what has become, in my view, an especially expensive means of maintaining current systems of social, economic, and political oppression.