Conscience Laundering

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 5th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

Peter Buffet, meet Andrew Carnegie.

Peter, one of Warren Buffet’s sons, has been “trending” of late due to the op-ed piece he had in The New York Times recently.  He makes two very prescient observations that are likely to cause many well-intentioned philanthropists to shudder.  I hope, however, that once the shudder stopped coursing up and down their spines, they, and all of the other philanthropists who read his piece, paused to really think about his point.

Point one, he talks about “philanthropic colonialism”—the philanthropists “urge to save the day” despite not having any real and appropriate knowledge on just how that saving should take place.  But, as with all good colonialists who believe they know better than the poor slobs being colonized, our philanthropic colonialists aren’t stopped by that lack of knowledge.  After all, we are raised in this country to believe that money solves all ills!

Point two, and this is the one to which much attention should be given, Buffet defines “conscience laundering.”  What a wonderful concept! He points to  philanthropists who, in their day jobs, create(d) with one hand create the very ills they are trying to rectify with their charitable giving.  “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back’.”  Kind of like the arsonist who sets the fire and the reappears in the crowd to help rescue people and/or put the blaze out.

Too often philanthropists—whether they are giving away their own money or acting as a paid philanthropist and giving away the money that has been put into a foundation—do think they know better than the people whose conditions they are trying to improve and the workers who have dedicated their careers (and, yes, often their lives) to improving those conditions.  But that does not stop them–at a cost for all of us.

More than 100 years ago, Andrew Carnegie said:
“[i]t were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.  Of every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probably that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.”

A variation on Buffet’s theme, in a way.  Yet, ironically, Carnegie epitomizes Buffet’s point.

Going from dirt poor as a child to filthy rich as an adult, Carnegie gave $60 million to build a system of public libraries across the United States.  Yet Carnegie was also the owner of Carnegie Steel, which was the locus of one of the worst labor disputes in the history of this country—the Homestead Steel Strike—despite its short duration.  The striking steel mill workers were asking for money, noting that books could do nothing for them given that they were working 12 hours a day, six days a week.  “Knowing better”—and being better?—Carnegie responded, “”If I had raised your wages, you would have spent that money by buying a better cut of meat or more drink for your dinner. But what you needed, though you didn’t know it, was my libraries and concert halls. And that’s what I’m giving to you.”

There is something important to consider in Buffet’s allegations and Carnegie’s actions, which is not uncommon amongst philanthropists.  Just because a philanthropist values something, thinks something is important, does not mean that is what is important to the people and communities in need.  Buffet asks whether having Wi-Fi on every street is progress, and answers his own question with a strong no.  Instead, he says, progress is “when no 13-year old girl on the planet gets sold for sex.”

I’m with Buffet:  I love having easy access to the Internet, regardless of where I am.  But do I want philanthropic dollars going to fund that work or the cessation of sex trafficking of anyone—female or male.  Philanthropists should just throw their millions in the sea, or indulge themselves however they wish, if they aren’t willing to understand the true needs of the people and communities they wish to help; if they aren’t willing to say, “This is not my field; here I am not the expert;” if they aren’t going to partner with, as opposed to dictate to, the nonprofits that have decades of knowledge and failures and successes under their belts.

For those philanthropists who want a feel good moment, please get it on your own time; for those who truly want to help make a difference, use that Wi-Fi on every corner to do some homework, discover who the professionals are, who is having the successes and take your money, enthusiasm and desire to really help to them.


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.