philanthropy trends

Between Humanistic and Political Philanthropy

Feb 2012

Should Philanthropy be subjected to Ethics? Seemingly, the Idea is out of place, it would be as if we subjected the righteous to a test of righteousness, while he is giving indulgently. However, since philanthropy is a human activity we are obliged to evaluate it. Henceforth I shall distinguish goodwill toward mankind, or benevolence from largess. Philanthropy as benevolence is quite easy to evaluate, in comparison to largess. I do not intend to contribute to that discourse by floating the ethical dilemmas faced by philanthropy as largess, but by demanding that these dilemmas be scrutinized, especially in view of the importance of this type of philanthropy in our abnormal times.
Philanthropy’s double meaning
The term Philanthropy is associated with Prometheus the philanthropist, who due to his goodwill toward mankind, stole the fire from mount Olympus and gave it to mankind along with hope. The link between the two gifts is obvious: fire by itself, manifested as potency and technology, is insufficient, and its potential destructiveness requires hope for better days. On the other hand, inert hope carries the seeds of impotency, and is bound to become an empty illusion. However, with the passing of time, and particularly in contemporary Israel, Philanthropy has turned from goodwill toward mankind into a neutral term, denoting largess. That is its Hebrew translation. Therefore we are dealing with two concepts of Philanthropy, parallel and related to each other. Largess, the second concept, means donating money for a specific objective, be it the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, or the promotion of Arab women, Jewish education, or egalitarian, democratic education. Goodwill toward mankind, Philanthropy’s original meaning, does not imply material donations, volunteering to work towards humanity’s welfare is sufficient. Thus Albert Schweitzer is considered a philanthropist without donating any money, side by side with Warren Buffet or any other benevolent soul who donates to the upkeep of a soup kitchen serving hungry children. The second concept – emphasizing material donations – widens the scope of philanthropic deeds, even while regulating them by law.
These two concepts of Philanthropy – empathy on the one hand, promotion of a private agenda on the other, pose before whoever wants to say something about the Ethics of Philanthropy – about receiving as well as giving – very different types of questions. The shift from Philanthropy as a commitment to the welfare of humankind – teaching children the alphabet, fighting hunger – the highest expression of humanism, to Philanthropy as largesse, transfers whoever ventures to estimate Philanthropy, from having to express an opinion about humanism, to the embarrassing position of having to grapple with a variety of questions. We move from simple charity to a conscious human political act. Indeed, concerning an agenda promoting Philanthropy, we cannot express a general opinion; everything depends on a person’s attitude and his or her relation to that specific agenda. If one concurs with it he will have a positive opinion, and vice versa. This may even evolve into a struggle against Philanthropy, as discernible lately in Egypt where there is a fierce opposition to American Philanthropy in support of democracy, and in Israel where the New Israel Fund is under attack, and all philanthropic donations are under rigorous scrutiny.
Democracy and Philanthropy: a subject for study
This subject raises many questions, difficult ones; perhaps we may even discuss a compass – an Ethical code governing Philanthropy within a democratic state. How should we evaluate a newspaper such as “Israel Today” whose purpose is to praise the prime minister? Where should we draw the lines? By the act of giving his money not to an elected government, the philanthropist uses his wealth to exert influence in matters that are in dispute, perhaps even against the electorate’s will, while not being elected democratically to meddle in matters pertaining to the good of the country or otherwise. In a global world where a few magnates may be as potent as countries, Philanthropy as largesse may rightly be seen as an invasion or a threat to a country’s independence. Anyone who is on the receiving end of Philanthropy should ask himself this and perhaps other questions.
Might and Responsibility
How do things look from the philanthropist point of view? I can only assume that more complicated than he estimated. After overcoming the first dilemma of his very right to exercise his might, while not having been elected democratically, an old style philanthropist would have been interested in the sums of money involved, and in maximizing the benefits. He would have to consider priorities such as: education versus food for the hungry etc.; Reaching the real needy as opposed to those who are better positioned to reach donors, etc. The current situation, as an outcome of capitalism, forces the philanthropist to grapple with questions and responsibilities unknown to those practicing Philanthropy in its original concept. However sure he is today of his donation, he may change his mind in the near or far future, not to mention the fact that his money may be used contrary to his intention. Regrettably sitting and doing nothing is not an option, since while one may avoid donating in the hope of causing no damage, other philanthropists may jump on that wagon, thus effectively his might imposes on him specifically duties from which he cannot withdraw.
Between the Philanthropist and the Investor
In this context it makes sense to note the distinction between the Philanthropist and the Investor. A philanthropist who has his own interests in mind is actually an investor. A real philanthropist, true to the original sense of the term, ignores his own interest. Incidentally he may gain personally; this does not disqualify his donation, on the contrary. But, if by donating he gains access to the authorities, and furthers his own interests, we may suspect his motives. As a matter of fact, a true philanthropist often betrays his own or his social class’s interests, for example Prometheus, or Moses who exited the king Pharaoh’s palace in order to witness the afflictions of his brothers. Therefore when discussing the ethical problems facing a philanthropist, we should make a clear distinction between he who truly gives and the other who has his own interests in mind.

In the web of strategies
As someone whose involvement with Philanthropy is negligible (with the exception perhaps of one foundation), these are the questions that I pose to myself as a layman. But if I may, I would like to comment here not as a neutral researcher, but as a social and communal activist. There is no definite answer to whether benevolence is preferable to largess or vice versa. The distinction between humanist and political philanthropy and the donations emanating from each depends on the circumstances. There is a big difference between philanthropy in normal and in non-normal times. I will try to elaborate on this point by entering the shoes of a donor, and examining the possibilities he is presented with.
One strategy presented to whoever can and feel obligated to take responsibility, is donating rationally basing one’s decisions on research. This research and evaluation based philanthropy may rightly set some philanthropists’ minds at rest. Certain known problems are attached to it, at least in the short run, such as the cost of research which may devalue significantly the donation itself, or the very question of measurability, of what is measurable (think of measuring the contribution of say, Tzav Pius Project run by the Avi Chai foundation, or how to evaluate one school project among others.
Another valuable strategy involves withdrawal into the safe and conventional, the secure zone. However by doing this the philanthropist is taking upon himself assignments which all agree should be accomplished by the elected government. I suggest that the less a donation is disputable, the more it belongs in the public domain. This type of philanthropy has become epidemic in Israel where a plethora of NGOs is taking upon themselves government obligations (the additional epidemic of the contractor’s workers employed by the government to cut costs, displays a bleak scene of safe philanthropy). Some would say that this type of philanthropy is a purveyor of hope and nothing else; others may add that it takes part in a latent privatization, or that it is channeling capable energies into wasteful assignments while enabling the government to back off its obligations toward society. All these are public knowledge and there is no need to waste too many words on them.

Then there is the eclectic strategy. Just pick something you like and nurture it, like someone who picks beautiful shells on the beach. Not trying to evaluate the benefits that may be derived from one’s donation, one just picks whatever meets his eyes. The pros and cons of this strategy are clear. There is some modesty involved, and amusement which awakens one to the pleasures of giving. However, this strategy may also give rise a sense of missing something better, a nobler cause perhaps. To this objection our philanthropist may answer that excellence is the eternal enemy of the good, and that the very objection is futile. Apparently we are raising a non issue: a woman chose a husband after a long deliberation, and someone whispers in her ear that perhaps there is a better one somewhere.
One always doubts whether he has done his best. Sometimes the doubt is obsessive compulsive, at other times it requires a serious accounting. During normal times, when there are others to rely upon, even when there are no such others, choosing the eclectic form of philanthropy is easily permissible. Even in times of natural calamities, the simple love of human kind makes sense. However, in emergencies, when society is grappling with social or security dilemmas, philanthropy may play a very important, even if not a crucial role. During such emergencies, eclectic philanthropy is insufficient. Consider for example the crucial role played by philanthropy in the foundation of the state of Israel, and it becomes clear that eclectic philanthropy then would have totally missed the target. In emergencies the circumstances do not allow us to make do with eclectic philanthropy, society must consider philanthropy as a part of a wider set of strategies and assign it a proper role.
The same is applicable to the other philanthropist strategies: The evaluating and the withdrawing ones. Normally the evaluation comes only after the choice of involvement, without pretense to relevancy, and results in its improvement or in withdrawal if the outcomes are disappointing. Withdrawal into the safe zone strengthens and preserves the social order, a valuable cause no doubt, but irrelevant when society requires a new order.
In praise of Philanthropy
The reader may have the impression that I am nostalgic for the days of classical philanthropy, when it motivated from pure humanism, and that the philanthropist would rather form his little comfort zone, as if saying, “I shall give where I please, and be contended that others will fulfill the task.” My true opinion, however, is that in times of crisis, national, and even geopolitical, this humble strategy cannot satisfy a true philanthropist. I am reminded of the opinion of our sages of blessed memory, who were unequal in emphasizing the virtues of humility, but still aware of the dangers inherent in its dogmatic application in times of crisis. Their judgment in the tale of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza was this, ” Rabbi Yochanan says because of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos hesitation the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land.” In our times and in Israel a true philanthropist should have a clear agenda. When the challenges are so big and complicated, when trust in the authorities is undermined, the change from benevolent to largess philanthropy requiring an agenda, is a real blessing. It becomes clear while considering such questions as Jewish identity, the main actors in this arena, the waning of the old ethos, the difficulties inherent in governing the Israeli society, etc. And it becomes even clearer considering that matters of welfare and discrimination – which are at the heart of Philanthropy as a manifestation of love of humankind – require a political response – which is at the heart of Philanthropy as largess.

Philanthropy as largess has serious political implications, and I am trying to evaluate its justification. Debating these implications for life and democracy in Israel is essential, and we should prepare ahead to deal with them. Largess Philanthropy devoid of self criticism, open mindedness and responsibility is nearly negligent. It may supply hope without fire or worse than this, fire devoid of hope. On the other hand equipped with knowledge of the dangers and their management, by navigating the turbulent waters of the big game, Philanthropy may benefit the citizens of Israel as it did during the foundation of the state.


Dr. Meir Buzaglo is the Head of the department of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The areas he researches include the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of Judaism.

Among Dr. Buzaglo’s fields of interest are the Philosophy of Maimonides and Solomon Maimon. A son of R. David Buzaglo, one of the greatest Moroccan Jews composers and performer of pyyutim, Dr. Buzaglo, a member of Avi Chai Foundation, is active in the rejuvenation of that musical tradition. He is chairman of “Tikun” Movement for the renewal of society and culture in Israel.