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The Ultra Rich Won't Drive Innovative Philanthropy  —  Trusting Community Will

August 07, 2018

Community_friends_globeIn an announcement that resembled an NBA free agent mulling over prospective candidates for his services, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos took to Twitter to inform the world that he is very nearly ready to make his major philanthropic debut. After a year of consideration, Bezos stated, "I have settled on two areas that I'm very excited about," adding that he would reveal the areas of interest before the end of the summer.

It goes without saying that when the world's richest man decides to devote a fraction of his wealth to social good, the philanthropic community takes notice. Bezos has become a hot topic in funding circles, with many speculating on where he will focus his efforts and debating the merits of the likeliest scenarios. Those working in or around philanthropy are wise to pay heed to the emergence of a major funder, especially one who aims to make a public splash. At the same time, there are those whose interest in what he will do has devolved into uninhibited enthusiasm and misplaced hope, helping to drive a narrative that Bezos has the capacity and will to significantly change philanthropy or even the world.

Undoubtedly, Bezos' reputation for innovating and succeeding across industries has excited many who hope he will apply that same entrepreneurial spirit to his philanthropy. When you consider Bezos in the context of his business practices and broader history, however, it seems unlikely he'll establish himself as the change agent some are hoping for. For instance, though Bezos announced his intention to step up his philanthropy a year ago, reports have continued to emerge detailing the appalling work conditions and staggeringly low wages paid to Amazon workers. We've also learned of the labor-camp-like conditions at the Hengyang Foxconn factory responsible for the production of Amazon's Kindle, Echo Dots, and tablets. Instead of speculating on what Bezos can accomplish through philanthropy, maybe we should be asking whether he could achieve more good by committing to reform Amazon's exploitive corporate practices.

Perhaps the positive reception Bezos has enjoyed with respect to his philanthropic push simply reflects our society's tendency to venerate the rich and famous. Or maybe we're just desperate to believe that, in these tumultuous times, someone will emerge who is willing to put their power and influence to good use. However, philanthropy as an institution can ill afford to mistake Bezos for anything more than what his actions (and inaction) suggest he is.

Fortunately, hope remains.  If philanthropy wants to embrace genuine innovation while maximizing impact, we should reconsider who is best equipped to drive cutting-edge change. While the ultra rich play a critical finance role in philanthropy, one could argue that it is the only role they should play. Whether one has accumulated or inherited it, wealth does not give one special insight into society's most pressing problems, nor can it purchase solutions. To be clear, this is not a condemnation of Bezos and his tech-philanthropy contemporaries, or a denigration of their skills and value to their industry and society more generally. Rather, it's a rebuke of top-down philanthropy and the false notion that the ultra rich are the only ones equipped to drive effective, equitable, and inclusive social change.

Most foundations and philanthropic organizations embrace this notion. By employing some of the world's brightest minds and subject matter experts, they implicitly acknowledge that there are people who are better equipped to lead and shape their efforts than the folks who have amassed the wealth. The reliance on formal experts has become a hallmark of the industry and is a key feature differentiating philanthropy from charity. In our drive to professionalize philanthropy, however, we often fail to consider what the full spectrum of expertise looks like. While credentialed and formally educated professionals have become philanthropy's de facto advisors and strategists, we have neglected to engage and utilize the expertise of the communities we purport to serve. Astonishingly, the "informal" experts who live, eat, sleep, and breathe these issues are too often left out of the decision-making process.

If philanthropy is looking for innovative solutions to the world's most pressing problems,  it need look no further than the communities most affected by those problems. It is time to embrace a vision of philanthropy that is community driven, community informed, and community led. It's time for funders to empower, equip, and champion community members as experts and leaders, rather than as spectators to the latest round of strategically aligned interventions.

Inevitably, Bezos will earn his philanthropist stripes, joining the ranks of Rockefeller and Ford, and alongside contemporaries such as Gates and Zuckerberg. He will succeed because he has built an empire against the odds, and there's no reason to doubt that he is any less committed to making his mark on philanthropy. One can only hope, however, that his vision of success entails more than building a living monument to his own altruism. Distressed communities across the globe deserve more than yet another foundation bearing the name and banner of a well-intentioned rich person. They deserve to be listened to and heard, and it is our job as the philanthropic executives, advisors, and administrators to uplift and champion their voices.

Headshot_raymond_holgado_for_PhilanTopicRaymond Holgado is a community-informed philanthropy enthusiast and Queens native working at the intersection of the haves and have-nots. He currently serves as grants and project manager at NEO Philanthropy and on the board of the Andrus Family Fund. This post originally appeared on Medium.

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