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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You make sense, Felix, but I missed the part about “making a real difference.” What do you propose?

Posted by davidseattle | Report as abusive

So I gotta naive question: couldn’t one small way individuals could effect Japanese outputs is to purchase Japanese goods directly? I saw that cdjapan ( was donating part of it’s sales to the Japanese Red Cross but maybe that’s less important than injecting money into the hands of Japanese distributors/artists/etc. So if folks when there and discovered something interesting like, I dunno, the Polysics, Boris or the works of Jun Ichikawa it would get more cash in Japanese hands (with the potential of opening up international interest in contemporary Japanese artists and creating some good ol’ growth in exports)?

Posted by jsullivan | Report as abusive

Hmmmmm… thatmeans you admit your post title … “Don’t donate money to Japan” was Blog Theatre. You felt you were saying the right thing to make a difference so it seemed to you to be doing something good. Because you have never apologized (the updates blog should have added that) it seems you still feel that way.

I worry about the way in which bloggers continue to confuse over the top headlines to attract eyes, with good blogging. And to also use a few of your words, if you’re writing a blog which is respected and influences people who want to help, then telling them that they can’t help is never a good message to send.

I still prefer to think you meant no harm so can be forgiven, but only if you stop writing about it. That people like Limbaugh would use your column as a stepping stone for his racial and harmful remarks should have your head hanging.

Next time, think before you write that important headline if you really wish to do some good. Do some groundwork for people to give alternative choices and not just the place you found to be most “worthy” of your support.

One last thing… a reminder that those who are unmotivated and for the most part unwilling to give at the best of times, have an urge to give at the worst of times. Never try to stop the unmotivated from acting because they will be happy to return to being unmotivated as the Japan relief slow down that ensued from your post and other bloggers has proven…

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

I think the idea that philanthropy theater doesn’t cause harm is wrong. It cause harm in two ways:
1) there is the inevitable opportunity cost of donations directed to Japan that would actually be useful if applied to caring for the humanitarian disasters in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire.
2) There is the long-term cost in terms of faith in the non-profit sector that comes along with people making donations that don’t seem to have much impact. That process is amplified and exacerbated by giving to issues that qualify as philanthropy theater. It doesn’t acculturate us to giving to charity, it acculturates us to thinking that giving to charity doesn’t matter in the end anyway.

Posted by timothyogden | Report as abusive

What a poorly researched post. I applaud your effort to highlight the many humanitarian crises which go under-reported and neglected, as opposed to the massive media coverage following the Japan and Haiti earthquakes, but including the relief effort following Haiti as an example of ‘philanthropy theater’ that doesn’t seem to make much difference in the long term anyway shows a very limited understanding of the context in which charities work. Charities don’t operate in a vacuum – they need an enabling environment and support from the government and authorities but this is lacking in most of the poorest and most dangerous and hostile areas in which humanitarian agencies operate. Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world before the earthquake struck and the administration was even more crippled by the event, unable to provide leadership and coordination to the many hundreds of agencies which responded to the disaster. The money raised by charities following the Haiti earthquake hasn’t been spent fast enough because aid agencies face 2 major obstacles to their work there – rubble, and disputes over land rights.

1. A year on from the earthquake, only about 5% of the rubble has been removed ( 0,8599,2041877,00.html) – without land being properly cleared, aid agencies can’t build schools and hospitals, shelter, water and sanitation facilities, etc.
2. Disputes over land rights also limit the ability of agencies to shelter homeless people, provide facilities, etc. A recent article by Reuters Alertnet highlighted the problem, ahead of the upcoming hurricane season ( ly-one-in-four-homeless-haitians-faced-w ith-eviction-iom/)

Unless donors and individuals and organisations (including Givewell) move away from an obsession with numbers and adopt a more flexible approach to evaluation, which also takes into account the contexts in which aid agencies operate, funding will continue to be skewed towards causes which appear to provide ‘more bang for the buck’ than on a needs basis. The needs in Haiti haven’t disappeared – over half a million people are still living in camps and charities need and want to spend the funds raised for the recovery effort. However, aid agencies also need the authorities to provide sufficient humanitarian space in which to do their work. You’re right to suggest there should be as much focus on the ‘ouputs’ as well as the ‘inputs’ when giving aid but in cases such as Haiti, that should include more pressure on the authorities and organisations such as the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, tasked with coordination of the relief effort, as well as measuring the performance of the charities themselves.

I have a suggestion – why doesn’t Reuters send you to spend a week at one of the hundreds of IDP camps in Haiti, ahead of the hurricane season, and report on your blog daily on what you’ve seen and felt? I’m sure the content would be a very different one from the ones which you’ve been posting recently on the theme of philanthropy from the comfort of your air-conditioned office in New York, and I would be very interested to read them as I’m sure many other Reuters readers would.
Perhaps your colleagues at Reuters Alertnet can also enlighten you on some of the issues that you’ve raised, as they seem to have a more informed understanding of aid and development..

Posted by globalnomad | Report as abusive

I’d like to know, what did you mean saying about “making a real difference”. I guess I could come up with several ideas.

Posted by Holley87 | Report as abusive