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Just Another Emperor?

March 10, 2008

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last week; instead of having a midlife crisis, I took a few days off to go skiing with my brother and some friends. All better now.

Book prefaces typically are genteel affairs in which punches are pulled and praise is spread like mayo on a BLT.

Not so in the case of Michael Edwards' preface to his own book, Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism, to be published in a week or so by Demos: A Network for Ideas & Actions and the London-based Young Foundation.

Edwards, currently director of governance and civil society at the Ford Foundation but writing, in the book, "entirely in a personal capacity," sizes up his quarry in the very first paragraph of the preface:

A new movement is afoot that promises to save the world by revolutionizing philanthropy, making non-profit organizations operate like business, and creating new markets for goods and services that benefit society. Nick-named "philanthrocapitalism" for short, its supporters believe that business principles can be successfully combined with the search for social transformation....

Edwards does not. In fact, he writes, there's "a huge gulf between the hype surrounding this new philanthropy" -- which, in his formulation, sounds a lot like the "venture philanthropy" of the late 1990s -- "and its likely impact." The danger, he argues, is that (emphasis added):

  • The hype surrounding philanthrocapitalism runs far ahead of its ability to deliver real results. It's time for more humility.
  • The increasing concentration of wealth and power among philanthrocapitalists is unhealthy for democracy. It's time for more accountability.
  • The use of business thinking can damage civil society, which is the crucible of democratic politics and social transformation. It's time to differentiate the two and re-assert the independence of global citizen action.
  • Philanthrocapitalism is a symptom of a disordered and profoundly unequal world. It hasn't yet demonstrated that it provides the cure.

As mentioned, Just Another Emperor? won't be available in hard copy until later this month. In the meantime, the folks at The Nonprofit Quarterly have made it available as a (free) PDF download on the NPQ site.

What do you think? Are business practices and discipline compatible with social change? Has Edwards brought something new to the table, or is his argument the same old nonprofit wine in a new bottle? And does the dismal and increasingly obvious failure of Wall Street to make itself accountable to anyone or -thing render Edwards' critique moot?

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by DJ  |   March 12, 2008 at 10:50 AM

I skimmed through the PDF file (plan to give it a full reading) but it does seem to be a bit of a rolling complaint that "philanthrocapitalism" doesn't have the correct (in the author's mind anyway) agenda/approach in regards to overall social justice and societal transformation. I can't say that he didn't make some good points, but I personally always get a little uneasy when NGOs tread in that area.

Posted by Gena  |   March 13, 2008 at 10:44 PM

I too have only skimmed the PDF file and I have read Jim Collin's booklet on Good to Great for the Social Sector. While I agree, non-profit organizations are themselves their own "beasts" and that the corporate sector could learn a thing or two from the non-profit sector (especially on working on a shoestring budgets). The idea of philanthrocapitalism is an interesting one.

We are in an age where technology is allowing organizations to report more effectively and effeciently to their donors which also means that donors are now able to hold the organizations more accountable. We have learned from major business fiascos (Enron and Bre-X come to mind) that legislation on accountability in the business sector has direct impacts on the non-profit sector (espeically around financial reporting). I think that as donors become more sophisticated in the way they make their philanthropic investments, non-profit organizations have to also become just as sophisticated. In some cases, that means adopting a business model.

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