Of Philanthropy and Individualism

            I am just back from a national tenth anniversary forum hosted by the University of Southern California Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy and dubbed “Philanthropic Leadership: Exploring Opportunities in Uncertain Times.” The event proved both timely and thought provoking. Among other broad concerns discussed was an apparent duality that now dominates the field. On the one hand, more people and organizations are now involved in various forms of philanthropy than ever before. Giving circles and donor-advised funds as well as various forms of venture philanthropy partnerships abound. This would appear to imply both a democratization and a collective willingness to give on a scale and across a population heretofore unprecedented. On the other hand, however, individuals and groups increasingly target their giving for specific purposes that they themselves determine. This would appear to imply both a diminution in the respect accorded professionals and community chests and an increased individual desire to determine which organizations receive which funds, how much they are provided and for what purposes they use it.

            So, on its face, more groups are involved in giving to the detriment of an “expert” role in philanthropy even as more individuals than ever before are engaged in collective forms of giving. The foci of giving are ever more pluralistic but the form of that giving is increasingly driven by small collectives. But this apparent antinomy hides a strong and common undercurrent: Both trends are fueled at their heart by increasing individualism. Givers do not trust anyone but themselves to determine how much to give and to whom, even though many with more professional knowledge may well know of opportunities, factors and possibilities otherwise unavailable to those individuals. Likewise, citizens are coming together in unprecedented numbers to join their donations for shared purposes, but these groups are not typically born of shared ethnicity, religion, race or other characteristic. Instead, individuals decide to join of their own volition and for their own purposes, and if these are not satisfied, they are certainly free not to continue to participate. They are subject to no constraints beyond their own determinations and will. Both the much noted growth in the population of givers as well as the fact that many are choosing to give via collectives of various sorts are joined at their root by the decisions by individuals to participate or not as they see fit. Both, that is to say, are the product of an ever more pervasive individualism in American society. That fact constitutes food for thought.