Recovering the heart of philanthropy

Mark PetersenBook Reviews

A lot has changed during my 21+ year philanthropy career. In the beginning I was wowed by the alluring potential that seemed to exist to “change the world” (a phrase I’ve come to disdain). This belief seemed to be based on the idea that society could engineer the end to poverty and other human ills. Big, upstream solutions (involving money and ingenuity) would fix our depravity. I love strategic interventions, but let’s have the humility to acknowledge there is a limit to what we can effect.

I’ve found some solace in the work of Jeremy Beer. His book, The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, and his company American Philanthropic, has provided me with new ways to understand philanthropy centred in a new word: philanthrolocalism. This unwieldy, invented word doesn’t quite summarize his intent, I feel, but it is a good attempt to honour the charitable contributions made as an expression of faith and rooted in community. Understanding philanthropy as a technology that will fix society assumes a secular orientation that is wholly inadequate for the potential beauty and transformational power of true generosity. In constrast, Beer’s approach is based in a Judeo-Christian ethos of self-giving sacrifice as the pathway to communion between diverse people in a community.

This approach “directs its gaze at particular humans embodied in particular places at particular times rather than at humanity, the nation, the global community, or any other agglomeration of humans in the abstract…. The philanthrolocalist concern is to promote human flourishing within the local community, not to ‘change the world’ through the technologies of social entrepreneurship.” (p. 99)

He recommends that people give locally, and engage personally and lovingly with others needing help. “The effective donor need not — and probably should not — want to ‘change the world’. It’s hard enough to improve one’s own block.” (p. 104)

Join our Stronger Philanthropy community to discuss your thoughts on this approach to philanthropy, and learn from others also on this journey.