Philanthropy theater

By Felix Salmon
April 1, 2011
And yet:

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Mike Bloomberg is one of the richest and most sophisticated philanthropists in the world. And yet:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn today announced that employees of the City of New York will be able to set aside part of their paychecks directly to aid in the Japan disaster relief efforts…

“We brought generous New Yorkers together to raise $2.2 million for Haiti relief and we are asking anyone who can contribute to help those in dire need in Japan,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “The Mayor’s Fund will complete the necessary vetting and ensure contributions will go to reputable organizations with low overhead that are delivering services on the ground. Any help is appreciated – big gifts or small gifts; it all adds up and can make a real difference.”

This is the point at which political realities trump realistic philanthropic priorities. It’s simply not true that a small gift to Japan can make a real difference, at least not in terms of what it buys on the ground. But if you’re leading a city of people who want to help, then telling them that they can’t help is never a good measure to send. If on the other hand you tell them that they can help, they will feel much better. It’s the job of the mayor of New York to make New Yorkers feel better, so you can see why he therefore says things like this.

I got an email from Tom Glocer, the CEO of Thomson Reuters, this morning, announcing that the company has matched some $150,000 of employee donations to emergency relief efforts in Japan. (Not including donations from people like me, which were also matched, but which weren’t directed to Japan.)

This is great news with respect to morale in the company, where all of us, I think I’m safe in saying, felt dreadful about what had happened in Japan and wanted to show our support for our colleagues there, their families, and the areas of the country so devastatingly affected. One Japanese employee said that “I think I can speak on behalf of everyone in Japan when I say how touched we have been by the warm support by our colleagues across the company. I really feel like we are part of a global organization who cares about us.” Our messages of support, and our donations of money, are a signal which does make people feel better.

What we’re seeing here, I think, can be considered “philanthropy theater”, much as the TSA engages in “security theater”. The point is really to be seen to be doing good, to feel as though you’re making a difference. And frankly that’s not a particularly bad thing. There are lots of reasons why people donate money to good causes, and not all of them are or should be entirely selfless. If acts like these acculturate us to giving money to charity, then maybe the effects here can be positive. Certainly there’s no sense in which giving money to Japan does any harm.

Still, I do worry about the way in which philanthropists like Bloomberg continue to conflate giving money, on the one hand, with making a real difference, on the other. If we continue to concentrate overwhelmingly on inputs rather than outputs, we’ll only serve to encourage ever more inefficiency and even fraud in the non-profit world.

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