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[Review] The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty

January 14, 2016

"Foundations are bizarre beasts. They are created to solve societal problems by using inordinate amounts of wealth — wealth that is inherently contradictory because it was gleaned out of the inequalities...it proposes to address."

That contradiction, shared with Erica Kohl-Arenas by a foundation program officer in an interview conducted for her new book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, is at the heart of what Kohl-Arenas calls the "self-help approach to poverty alleviation." It's an approach, she writes, grounded in the "belief that entrenched poverty is the result of social and economic isolation that [traps] poor people within a culture of poverty," while largely ignoring "the structural causes of poverty and inequality." As starkly illustrated by Kohl-Arenas, an assistant professor of nonprofit management at the New School in New York City, it is also an approach whose inherent limitations raise troubling questions about the ability of private philanthropy to change "the conditions of poverty or help the people [it] claims to serve."

Book_the_self_help_myth_for_PhilanTopicDrawing on case studies of the mid-twentieth-century farm workers movement and more recent foundation-funded initiatives in California's Central Valley, Kohl-Arenas documents how, over the decades, grassroots self-help initiatives have repeatedly been co-opted by private foundations into "nonthreatening service or 'civic participation' programs in keeping with [their] current funding priorities," obscuring the fact that foundations in general are reluctant to support union organizing, strikes, boycotts, and other types of "radical" activity. The surprise, for Kohl-Arenas, is that anyone would be surprised. After all, it was Andrew Carnegie, in the Gospel of Wealth (1889), who suggested that "the new rich had a responsibility to help the poor help themselves — in the interest of preventing protest," while the history of American philanthropy in the decades since is rife with examples of foundations de-politicizing and "neutralizing" initiatives that threaten the social and economic status quo. As a result, Kohl-Arenas argues, foundation-funded self-help programs have served to shift the focus from "capitalist processes that create poverty" to "the weaknesses and responsibilities of the poor."

To illustrate her argument, Kohl-Arenas devotes a chapter to the case of Cesar Chavez, whose efforts to organize and unionize farm workers in California and Florida in the 1960s and '70s have been the subject of two recent books and a movie that, in her words, "complicate [the] story most commonly told." A farm worker and civil rights activist in the 1950s, Chavez rose to national prominence in the 1960s as co-founder (with Dolores Huerta) of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The broader farmworker movement had received crucial early funding, including "Depression-era grants to support migrant community and childcare centers incubated through the [Works Progress Administration]," from the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, which provided additional funding in the late 1950s and early 1960s to assist Central Valley farmworkers in building their own homes and to support so-called movement organizations. The effect of the foundation's programs, however, was to create, in Kohl-Arenas' words, farmworker leaders "more concerned with empowerment through education, relationships with mainstream institutions, and migrant-led infrastructure development," a model that, because of "its educational and relational, as opposed to confrontational and systemic, approach to self-help...garnered mainstream institutional support in local communities."

The emergence of Chavez as a social justice activist during the Delano grape strike of 1965 and the national grape boycott launched by NFWA the following year changed the picture. According to Kohl-Arenas, a younger Chavez never imagined union organizing becoming the focus of the movement, but as political unrest across the country mounted, the charismatic Chavez "rose to the occasion and became a spokesperson for the strike, both in the fields and nationally."

The growing militancy of the farmworker movement began to make its philanthropic allies "uncomfortable," however, especially after "grape strikers in the Central Valley threatened [in 1968] to turn to violence." Chavez, who was nothing if not ambivalent about the radicalization of the movement, "fasted for twenty-five days to redirect [it] toward peace" — and received a message of solidarity from Martin Luther King, Jr. just months before the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis. The assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy, another key Chavez ally, a few months later compounded "Chavez's growing paranoia, which was fueled by death threats, FBI surveillance of the movement, and his unfounded suspicion of disloyalty among his closest allies and organizers."

In 1970, Chavez decided to relocate the movement's headquarters from Delano to a compound outside Bakersfield, where he and a group of family members and movement leaders formally incorporated the National Farm Worker Service Center as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. NFWSC had been established in 1966 with support from the Ford Foundation (which subsequently backed the UFW's application for tax-exempt status) and the Chicago-based Field Foundation. But the UFW's overtures to the AFL-CIO during this period fatally compromised the latter's support for the organization, and other key funders soon followed its lead, choosing to support NFWSC, whose programs "fell within the acceptable logic of self-help," rather than the UFW. The result, writes Kohl-Arenas, is that the "revolutionary interpretation of mutual aid to foster self-determination and ownership, and the subsequent union approach, were both replaced by a more charitable model."

At the same time, while foundations' "limited definitions of self-help undermine[d] the political organizing of the movement, their program operation and paperwork requirements" overwhelmed its leadership. "Between 1970 and 1976," she writes, "angry letters from foundations were received claiming that there was no documentation of how funds were being spent, no financial accounting, and unapproved re-appropriation of funds to undisclosed projects."

Indeed, the scramble for grant funding and the need for organizational capacity building that comes with it are recurring themes of Kohl-Arenas' book. In the mid- to late 1990s, for example, a foundation-driven, multi-stakeholder initiative focused on bolstering immigrant civic engagement and "social capital" in the Central Valley failed, Kohl-Arenas suggests, in part because grant contracts held the grantee organization accountable to funders — not to communities or constituents — and partners were selected by foundation staff who often had little on-the-ground expertise.  

Moreover, with the goals of the initiative defined as civic engagement, knowledge sharing, and relationship building, immigrant rights groups and talk of community organizing were kept out of public presentations so as not to frighten off foundation board members. As one activist interviewed by Kohl-Arenas noted, however, it is precisely poor immigrants' "invisibility" that deprives them of a civic voice. At the same time, the funding dynamic often meant that partners became rivals, while the focus on capacity-building efforts designed "to develop more organizations that...bigger foundations [could] fund" ended up diverting staff time away from the work, grassroots organizing, most likely to create change.

The third case study in the book focuses on a worker-grower partnership launched in 2007 based on "the now hegemonic 'win-win' or 'double-bottom-line development' trend in poverty alleviation, which proposes that what is good for capital is good for the poor." According to Kohl-Arenas, the theory of mutual prosperity, in which workers learn new skills that drive improvements in wages, living conditions, and profit margins yet again precludes the actual reform of industry practices that hurt workers. For example, even though foundation-funded research exposed alarming health conditions and food insecurity among Central Valley farm workers, a task force convened to build multi-sector consensus around how to address the problems called for action by the state, healthcare providers, and the workers themselves — but not the agriculture industry itself. Indeed, by requiring consensus from all stakeholders, she writes, "win-win" by definition waters down and de-politicizes collaborative action, making systematic change all but "unthinkable."

"[T]he partnerships between foundations, social movements, and advocacy organizations featured in the three case studies are ultimately untenable," Kohl-Arenas writes in conclusion, in that they promote "theoretical frameworks, institutional arrangements, and professionalized practices that constrain the work of organizers" and hamstring grassroots leadership. Moreover, if the strategy to create new nonprofits to mediate and separate economic from social justice concerns was once seen as successful and innovative, in hindsight we can see that it "ultimately failed the movement." Funders who attempt to improve public school systems, reform juvenile justice systems, or reduce food insecurity, joblessness, and health disparities among the poor, she suggests, would do well to pay attention.

Where does that leave the field? Is there a way for philanthropy to support efforts designed to address the structural and economic root causes of poverty? Kohl-Arenas isn't optimistic. In a blog post about the Ford Foundation's decision to shift its focus to attacking "inequality at its roots," she reminds us of the foundation's past efforts to address structural racism and inequality and wonders whether it can ever truly subvert its own power and privilege in order to put people in the driver's seat of social change. Nor does she find much reason to think that the current generation of institutionalized, professionalized, and foundation-funded nonprofits are the answer. Instead, she admires DIY "solutionaries" like the late Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, who in her final years focused on person-to-person relationships, neighborhood-run gardens, community policing, and cooperative schools; the Occupy movement and its recent focus on tenants' rights, a higher minimum wage, and anti-police brutality initiatives; and the founders of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

In the months since Black Lives Matter-inspired protests in Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore, and elsewhere captured the attention of the country, many foundations and nonprofits have reaffirmed their commitment to tackling poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. While The Self-Help Myth doesn't discount those commitments, it does serves as a reminder that the roots of all three are deeply embedded in our political and economic system — the same system that enables philanthropy on an institutional scale — and strongly suggests that any lasting solution to them needs to see the existing status quo as hindrance rather than the answer.

Kyoko Uchida is PND's features editor. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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