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Civil society should not be seen by experts, or funders, merely as a tool to solve social problems.

Nathan Washatka’s recent fine review of Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World points to a fundamental misstep too many philanthropists take in their pursuit of “solving problems.” 

“[T]o frame civil society primarily as a vehicle for solving problems opens the door to those who would sweep away portions of civil society in the name of solving problems better or more efficiently,” Washatka writes in his Philanthropy Daily piece. 

Grantmakers are typically encouraged to think: first, define the problem you want to solve—illiteracy in East Palo Alto, say, or hunger in Newark—and then go from there. Having framed it in that way, however, almost by definition turns a grantmaking program over to credentialed social-science experts, who are specifically trained in the science of solving public problems.  

These scientific experts will commonly point out to the donor that, given the complex chains of social cause and effect, the “problem” is so much broader than illiteracy or hunger. It’s really about poverty in general, which is really about unfair societal structures. And it’s so much broader than just Palo Alto or Newark, as well, by the way; it’s really national or even global in scope.

Therefore, the givers are inevitably further advised, the only genuinely feasible approach to solving the problem is to merge their modest contributions into that big collaborative consortium that the prestigious national Megamoney Foundation has magnanimously launched in the area to take on the structural unfairness. Since the collaboration requires a dollar-for-dollar match from local partners, donors can do that and proudly say they’ve leveraged their giving by co-investing with an impressive, respected major national philanthropy.

Wariness of an approach that defines grantmaking from the outset as public-policy problem-solving is warranted. As Washatka asks, “What if our most treasured institutions”—those of civil society—“exist not because they foster the ‘habit of solving problems together’ but because they foster virtuous habits that enable us to live our lives in fulfilling ways?”

And as he nicely concludes, “Civil society isn’t for anything. It’s a reflection of what we value and who we are, problems and all.”


This piece originally appeared in the Giving Review blog. 

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