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Albert Ruesga's Twenty-Four Theses

November 23, 2010

There are only two dozen of them (not ninety-five) and they're tucked away on a weeks-old blog post (not nailed to a door), but Greater New Orleans Foundation president Albert Ruesga's twenty-four theses should be read by every foundation executive and program officer who has ever wondered why the actual achievements of philanthropy so often fall short of its promise.

If you haven't read the post yet, here's a selection of some of Ruesga's more pointed assertions:

2. Taken together...the collective actions of foundations have failed to address, in any significant way, some of the most basic injustices in our society. After decades of work, foundations have failed to alter the basic condition of the poor in the United States. The gap between the rich and poor has widened in recent years. Individuals can work hard all their lives, manage their finances prudently, and still fail to have income security in their retirement. Racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry still affect the destinies of whole communities of people. Millions of people lack access to quality health care. Urban public schools do not provide a world-class education to our children. Because of lax lobbying and campaign finance laws, politicians are routinely bought and sold. Our economic prosperity is still tied to the ongoing degradation of our environment.

5. Foundations and their staffs often lack a sense of urgency about the challenges facing marginalized communities.

6. Unlike academic disciplines, foundation work lacks a tradition of vigorous debate and self-criticism. Because of this, our most bone-headed beliefs and practices go unchallenged.

14. The language foundations use to describe their work is frequently tortured and moribund. More often than not, foundations fail to communicate effectively the good they've been able to accomplish.

18. We must...be careful to avoid the Gadgets Heresy: the idea that new tools -- new social media sites, B corporations, more "efficient markets," etc. -- will save us from ourselves. Our greatest progress will not come from chasing the latest Shiny New Object, but from attending to the field's moral and intellectual failings.

20. We will knock our heads against some of our society's most intractable problems and make little progress addressing them as long as we ignore their social justice dimensions. It's absurd to believe that we can can effectively address the challenges faced by low-income communities, for example, by ignoring the effects of race and class or by side-stepping issues of power and privilege.

24. There is currently a great battle on for the soul of philanthropy. We oppose "technocrats" to "social justice grantmakers," "liberals" to "conservatives." But these are skirmishes on the edge of a larger battle about the role each of us will play in either contributing to or subtracting from the common good....

Indeed, Ruesga's post is the latest call to action in his long-running campaign against "philanthropy-as-usual" (see, for example, here and here) and a passionate defense of social justice philanthropy. As he writes in a new article ("What Is Social Justice Philanthropy?") that will appear in the December issue of UK-based Alliance magazine (a PND content partner):

For many marginalized communities, the good that philanthropy has accomplished has not been good enough. In my own country, the United States, for example, one in five children lives in poverty -- a shameful statistic given our great wealth and the tens of thousands of foundations committed to helping the poor. These disparities fuel those critics who argue that now, as in ages past, philanthropy has functioned largely as a social safety valve, redistributing just enough wealth to keep poor people from picking up their torches and pitchforks and storming the mansions of the overlords.

These disparities also highlight, in my view, the significant shortcomings of philanthropy-as-usual. To make the same kinds of grants year after year to the same communities, to see the same disparities persist and even widen, and not to question deeply one's whole approach to giving is to do philanthropy in bad faith. Social justice philanthropy offers us a way of recommitting ourselves to philanthropy's great aims while holding ourselves accountable for its heretofore lacklustre outcomes....

Something for us to think about as we sit down later this week and give thanks....

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Albert  |   November 24, 2010 at 11:49 AM

Thanks for the shout-out, Mitch. Much appreciated. Hope you have a wonderful Organic, Free-Range Turkey Day.

Posted by Beth Steinberg  |   November 29, 2010 at 01:10 AM

Excellent post. As a co-founder of a small, NPO in Israel dedicated to inclusion and providing social services for kids and teens with special needs, what I've really learned is that inclusion is a matter of social justice and that people with special needs are marginalize and isolated from the greater community and that has to change. How to make the world understand and want to support this work is our challenge.

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