The Role of Philanthropy: Social Service or Social Change

By: Diane Cornman-Levy

For the past 30 years I have been working to decrease inequities in education, health, housing and wealth as a healthcare provider, educator, and executive director of four non-profits. I worked with highly skilled and educated women and men who were dedicated to improving the lives of others. Together we designed and implemented new programs that educated and empowered those impacted by poverty by improving their knowledge, building their skill sets and strengthening their motivation. We forged partnerships, raised money, engaged thousands of volunteers. Our intentions were grand. Our efforts were strong. But our results were not what we expected or desired.

So, what were we doing wrong? Why did our efforts contribute to so little change? Why did we ultimately fail at creating more equity? To answer these questions, we need to understand the historical roots of the philanthropic sector and non-profit industrial complex. Specifically, who started it? Why did philanthropy start? What was it designed to do? The system of charitable giving increased exponentially during the early 1900s when the first billionaires created new institutions that would support charitable giving in order to shield their earnings from taxation. These foundations that served as tax shelters for the wealthy were required to donate 5 percent of their net investment income to charitable purposes. From their inception, foundations invested in think tanks, research and narratives designed to ameliorate social issues- in a manner that did not challenge capitalism and the vast accumulation of wealth at the top 1% of the country.

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