Thursday, August 07, 2008

A critique of Just Another Emperor

The recent book, Just Another Emperor, is getting a lot of attention in philanthropic circles these days. It slams the use of business thinking and approaches in philanthropy, and makes some drastic policy recommendations to fix elite philanthropy by those dubbed philanthrocapitalists. The term comes from Matthew Bishop of the Economist, whose book Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, is coming out next month.

I really don't like Just Another Emperor, and it's because of the spin techniques used to attempt to make the case for the policy changes it advocates. I couldn't contain myself and wrote a lengthy seven part critique on the Global Philanthropy Forum's Discussion Forum on the topic. If you checkout the link, my comments start near the bottom. I'm attaching my conclusion below.

If you read the critique, you can tell this got me going. I'm working on writing this up as an essay (with editing) rather than a series of blog posts.


A Philanthrocapitalist’s Critique of a Critique of Philanthrocapitalism

Part Seven and Conclusion

The Emperor is Better Dressed than You Think


The goal of Just Another Emperor was to make the case for reform of elite philanthropy, the giving of the new generation of philanthrocapitalists. The goal of this critique was to cast significant doubt on these conclusions, by illustrating the spin techniques utilized to reframe and distort the debate. By complimenting individual philanthrocapitalists and social entrepreneurs while denigrating the accomplishments of both communities, the piece sets up straw men to demolish. However, these straw men are not representative and the case falls apart on contact with reality. When Just Another Emperor tells you something is so, there is a very real chance that the opposite is predominant in the real world of philanthropy and social entrepreneurship.

Note what this critique does not say. It does not say that social enterprise is not a vital part of social sector reform: it absolutely is. It does not say that market forces will solve all social issues: they will not and cannot. It doesn’t directly discuss corporate social responsibility, other than to discourage policy outcomes that would make the social sector more dependent on corporations for funding, which today in the U.S. they are not.

This critique does make the strong case that activism and advocacy are not separable from social entrepreneurship, they are foundational to a field whose defining single point of commonality is a commitment to social mission. Social enterprise uses market forces primarily to serve disadvantaged communities through creating jobs and opportunity, not through squeezing profits out of them. It does make the case that the real world philanthrocapitalists invest in far more than social enterprise, and are far more progressive in terms of funding empowerment, funding globally and funding communities of color than traditional charity, foreign aid and government funding.

The policy recommendations in Just Another Emperor seek to ensure that no good deed goes unpunished. While some of them are similar to other recommendations made in the field, the Emperor’s Tax requirement to redistribute 60% of foundation funding to areas specified by the author is a prescription that will kill the patient. Voluntary giving will wither in the face of this compulsion regime. In the United States, we give partial tax breaks to those who give generously: a de facto match in tax dollars for charitable giving. This match does not make up for the Emperor’s Tax, which will discourage giving that will trigger these onerous provisions.

In conclusion, Just Another Emperor fails to make its case. By using the techniques of spin and public relations, it tries to establish a fact set that doesn’t resemble the actual field. It recommends some policy changes that would be more likely to kill its target of elite philanthropy than to reform it, especially given that the new elite philanthropists are more likely to give globally and to social sector causes and leaders drawn from disadvantaged communities. I’m sure that these fields can be improved, but Just Another Emperor is too fundamentally flawed to be the tool for the job.

1 comment:

Michael Edwards said...

I am grateful to Jim Fruchterman for focusing his attention on my pamphlet “Just another Emperor?” However, since Jim distorts, misrepresents or ignores the arguments I make in the book at almost every turn, I hope that readers of this blog will check out the book for free at www.justanotheremperor.org and make their own minds up.

The extract that Jim has re-posted above (“Part Seven and Conclusion”) is a good example of the gap between fact and fiction that underlies the rest of his critique. In my pamphlet I recommend that we should not attempt to legislate for reforms in philanthropy, but that we should certainly increase funding for work that addresses the root causes of social injustice, strengthen foundation learning and accountability, give “beneficiaries” a greater stake in governance and strategy, and have more humility in the way we approach our work.

In Jim’s version this becomes “the Emperor’s tax” that “seeks to ensure that no good deed goes unpunished” and will simply “kill the patient.” The conceptual and empirical arguments marshaled in the pamphlet are dismissed as “political spin”, despite the fact that they are faithful renderings of a large body of objective evidence which shows that there are trade-offs and contradictions between business thinking, market mechanisms, and social transformation. All of this evidence is foot-noted so that readers can follow-up and check my sources if they wish.

Conversely, Jim states that “the new elite philanthropists are more likely to give globally and to social sector causes and leaders drawn from disadvantaged communities”, an astonishing statement for which I can find no evidence at all. If you have some Jim, please post it on your blog so that we can all read and discuss it in a spirit of open and democratic debate.

The tremendous (and overwhelmingly positive) worldwide reaction to “Just another Emperor?” is evidence that a great many people are hungry for a different and more honest conversation about the future of philanthropy. This doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with the arguments I make. After all, the definition of “debate” is a contest between different views and voices. However, there is no virtue in de-legitimizing the views of those with whom you disagree by labeling them and their work in ways that no right-thinking person would support.

The good news is that a global network of scholars, funders and activists is already in formation to take this debate to the next level, focusing initially on in-depth evaluations of the impact of different approaches to the funding of social change. Readers of this blog are welcome to contact me for details.