NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Philanthropy, defender of civil society

Heather Lord, MPP

“Chorus: Let not thy love to man o'erleap the bounds
Of reason, nor neglect thy wretched state:
So my fond hope suggests thou shalt be free
From these base chains, nor less in power than Jove.

 Prometheus: Not thus — it is not in the Fates that thus
These things should end; crush'd with a thousand wrongs,
A thousand woes, I shall escape these chains.
Necessity is stronger far than art.”
                   – Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

The term “philanthropy” was first used in the Aeschylus work quoted above, a mythical tale about early humans dwelling in dark caves, living and dying at the whim of the gods. Prometheus shows exceptional philanthropos (love of humanity) when he defies the gods to give humans fire. The gift of fire symbolizes the beginning of all knowledge and optimism for the future – the two key ingredients necessary for improving the human condition. Because Prometheus’s gift was an act of rebellion against tyranny, philanthropia became inextricably associated with the arduous battle for a free and just civil society.

This association holds as true today as it did in ancient Greece. Global philanthropy is a massive international industry of strategic charitable organizations and activities broadly defined as “private initiatives for public good, focusing on improved quality of life.”[1] While laws and government policies generally encourage charities to flourish, philanthropy is often referred to as the “independent sector.” This independence is fiercely important. Ideally philanthropy and the state have a collegial relationship; however, like Prometheus, the philanthropic sector often finds itself fighting to defend a concept of justice and humanity at odds with the goals of the state, an unfortunate reality given the potential benefits of philanthropic causes to advance civil society in all societies.

In the United States, we can see an example of this tension in the government’s post-9/11 anti-terrorism funding guidelines which require that no resources from US non-profits fund terrorist organizations or suspicious individuals in a direct or even indirect way. For major foundations operating hundreds of international programs, following the letter of this law means they have to stay abreast of the multiple suspicious persons lists and run background checks on every conference attendee or every local vendor providing key program services in under-resourced high-risk regions. Charitable foundations and the US Treasury Department certainly share a commitment to combat terrorism, but clearly have a different threat calculus. Is the complex Gordian knot of terrorism really best addressed with such a blunt stroke against US-based foundations? Although it may be necessary for the US to want CYA (cover your assets) laws on the books, surely there is a more efficient way to address this problem than diverting foundation assets away from programs and into legal fees as they try ensure against and quell concerns about terrorism funding largely inapplicable to most US foundations.

There are also tensions in other countries as increased indigenous interest in private philanthropy forces a redefinition of the role between the citizen and the state. For example, in China there is some concern in the government that a robust home-grown independent philanthropic sector could invoke a destabilizing, undesirable “Western-style” democracy. The relative difficulty of officially registering a private foundation in China has resulted in growing informal extra-judicial philanthropic “gray market.” The fledgling Chinese Foundation Center was established in 2010 to build in-country philanthropic capacity, but continued crackdowns on freedom of expression in China may have a harmful effect on the burgeoning sector. In another part of the globe, an example of the tension between philanthropy and government in Africa is evidenced in the in the 2009 laws passed in Ethiopia capping NGOs’ foreign-sourced funding at 10% of their total budget and forcing organizations to go through an onerous re-registration process, effectively putting many of them out of business.

Philanthropy makes governments nervous only in countries where civil society makes those same governments nervous. This is all the more reason to consider the philanthropic sector as an essential civil society safeguard worthy of attention and investment. But putting aside strategic considerations (for once), philanthropy at its best is poised to act as a defender and advocate for the forward-looking goals of civil society in all countries, liberal or repressive. Regardless of the many challenges, human optimism remains unbound and hopefully each society will use the forces of philanthropos to fight its way to a better future for all of us. 

E-mail Heather at or check out her philanthropy blog,

[1] This definition from Wikipedia condenses excellent and extensive work on philanthropy by leading scholars John W. Gardner, Lester Salamon, and Robert Bremner.

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