Who comes to your mind when you think of a philanthropist? Do you picture Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffet? You may also think of corporations that support charitable causes to promote good relationships with their neighbors, to build their reputations, or to repair them. Or, maybe you think of an earlier generation of philanthropists. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrialists and robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller donated large sums of money to support institution building and research projects, among other things. The Philanthropy Roundtable reports that Rockefeller alone donated $540 million (unadjusted for inflation) during his lifetime. He still ranks among the wealthiest US Americans of all time.

Philanthropists like Carnegie and Rockefeller are most often remembered for their support of noble causes and contributions to stone, bricks, and mortar for timeless buildings marking the landscape of many US academic institutions. However, not all of their efforts contributed to the common good. For example, eugenics research in the early twentieth century received large contributions from both the Carnegie Institution and Rockefeller Foundation. Past mistakes and other problematic approaches to charitable giving have left philanthropic foundations open to criticism. A primary criticism is that they are not oriented toward justice and systemic change.

Albert Ruesga, a philosopher and former president and CEO of the New Orleans Foundation, summarizes critiques of philanthropy in his “Twenty-Five Theses.” Philanthropy can be undemocratic and preserves the privilege of the wealthy by allowing mega-rich donors to hold on to too much power. Charity comes at the expense of much needed systemic change, too often ignores the interests and needs of marginalized communities, and tends to promote the pet projects of a few individuals. Foundations fail to “address, in any significant ways, some of the most basic injustices of our society”—problems such as poverty, the growing wealth divide, racism, homophobia, and gender discrimination. If we look back at the history of movements for social justice such as civil rights and women’s suffrage, philanthropy, Ruesga argues, “played a minor role at best.” Ruesga, however, also suggests that if we are willing to ask challenging questions about what human flourishing should look like and grapple with past mistakes, then philanthropy can be oriented toward social justice.

As a scholar whose work bridges church and academy, I have served on several committees for my denomination that advocate for social justice through responsible corporate investing. I have also worked with nonprofits in different capacities by writing grants, providing introductory training for employees in the best practices of interfaith dialogue, and introducing nonprofit leadership to what religious traditions have to say about money, wealth, and debt. I am not alone in my effort to engage people across different sectors of society in order for our understanding of nonprofit leadership, investing, charitable giving, and economy to be reoriented toward justice and a larger common good. There are many good examples of organizations specifically working with foundations—Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society is an excellent resource.

To explore what a justice-oriented philanthropy might look like, I will first grapple with the original usage of the term “philanthropy,” which originally applied to a much larger web of life. I then identify the characteristics of justice-oriented philanthropy as it grounds itself in deep equality, care for one another, recognizes the interdependence of all living things, and seeks to do more than merely deal with problems that already exist, but also to analyze the root causes of human and environmental suffering. It also recognizes that collaboration and working with people across different sectors of society is the best way to address the fragmentation of local communities caused by growing gaps in income, wealth, access, and knowledge. Most importantly, just philanthropy emerges from the leadership of communities it intends to serve.

Swimming with the Dolphins Can Widen Our Moral Circles

Prior to the industrial revolution in the United States and Europe, the term “philanthropy” held a much broader connotation than used in reference to charity given by the wealthy on behalf of people in poverty or for the sake of projects chosen by individuals, committees, or boards. Philanthropy literally means friend or lover of humankind. Originally, the English term philanthropy conveyed more holistic orientation toward life for people and the planet. For example, in the first edition of British Zoology (1769), Thomas Pennant applied the term “philanthropists” to dolphins because of their “fondness for the human race” and their communal nature.

Philosophers today suggest that dolphins may challenge us to think differently about what makes human beings distinct from nonhuman animals and look to their relational nature to widen our own moral circles. Dolphins have their own rich cultures and societies and are incredibly social animals. Efforts began in the 1970s to use dolphin-assisted therapy because of how relationships with them increased speech and motor skills in people, particularly for those with developmental, emotional, or physical disabilities. You may be familiar with similar programs such as therapeutic riding, where human beings build relationships with horses to improve flexibility, muscle strength, and cognitive abilities.

The ancient Greeks considered the dolphin a sacred fish. In Greek, the root of the word “dolphin” relates to “delphus,” meaning “womb.” Dolphins live in pods, where they care for each other, work collaboratively to find food, play together, communicate with each other, and show empathy, particularly for those who are injured. Pennant may not have been thinking about dolphins’ ability to widen our own moral circles when he referred to them as philanthropists, but their behaviors can point us toward justice-oriented philanthropy.

Characteristics of Justice-Oriented Philanthropy

Just philanthropy begins with a particular orientation toward life that centers itself in the common good and assumes the essential relatedness of people and the planet earth. The great traditions of faith share with the dolphins commitments to sustainability, reciprocity, cooperation/collaboration, interdependence, and accountability to the commons. Dorian O. Burton and Brian C. B. Barnes, cofounders of TandemEd, outline a new framework for justice-oriented philanthropy that embodies these values in their essay on “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Social Justice”. This new framework acknowledges the social, economic, and political systems and structures that drive inequalities and orient philanthropic efforts from and toward the common good by identifying how certain groups and individuals gain privilege because of white supremacy, wealth inequalities, and lack of access and opportunity. A philanthropy that is oriented toward justice seeks to transform the systems and circumstances of inequality by working collaboratively and engaging the leadership of communities an individual or organization intends to serve.

Religious leaders also recognize the important role they can play in reorienting their charitable giving toward justice and working for systemic change. Although there are many more, one significant example that comes to mind is the contemporary Christian Food Movement. I encountered some leaders in this movement at a conference simply titled “The Churches Have Land” that was hosted by Wake Forest Divinity School in October 2018. The Christian Food Movement acknowledges God’s own relational ecology at the heart of their mission and the communal responsibility to ensure that all people are fed.

In the United States, about forty million people struggle with hunger, including twelve million children. Fifteen million US households are food insecure. Food insecurity disproportionately affects people of color and, in many cities across the nation, elected leaders and the food distribution system have failed black communities. There are also far fewer black farmers than there are white farmers, due to discriminatory practices in lending and access to land. At the same time, US denominational loyalties are declining and church properties are becoming financially burdensome. Congregational and denominational bodies own a lot of land. For example, the Catholic Church alone owns 177 million acres of land. The majority of church property across denominations is also in rural communities. These religious leaders are asking how church property can be used for the sake of feeding and justice.

Organic vegetables being sold at a pop-up farmer’s market. [Image courtesy of the author]

The Christian Food Movement invites churches to think about how the use of their land can define the churches’ missions in new ways. Individuals and congregations are donating their land or leasing it to farmers in order to address food insecurity and to redistribute wealth within local communities. Some think of redistributing church land as a form of reparations when predominately white churches donate land directly to black farmers. The Black Church Food Security Network, another effort, emerged when Pleasant Hope Baptist Church began to cultivate the front lawn of the church to provide fresh vegetables to the surrounding community in Baltimore.

Our Challenge

The Greeks associated dolphins with the womb because of the care they exhibited for each other and their relational nature. The way dolphins model love to humankind challenges us to think about what philanthropy means when the efforts are organic, not from the top down.

What would you add to the characteristics of justice-oriented philanthropy outlined here? If you are part of a group, organization, or institution that can take part in crafting a response to the significant social, economic, and political problems we are facing, how can you orient your work and your gifts toward justice? Let’s challenge each other by sharing ideas here.