Sugar-coated or cynical? More on books about philanthropy

Something odd happened after my last blog about my ‘best books’ on philanthropy. An American academic, whose work I admire, criticised my taste for being too sugar-coated. As someone who tends to fly home from philanthropy gatherings in the US feeling like a hard-nosed, cynical European amidst a sea of positive, high 5-ing Yanks, I rather enjoyed the compliment.

But to dispel the saccharine-taste left by my choices, I should point out this fuller Reading List that I maintain for Philanthropy UK, and I’d like to share the fave philanthropy-related books sent in by others in reply to my last blog:

1. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, by Samantha King

2. Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo

3. The Life You can Save, by Peter Singer

4. The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing ‘Nonprofit Organisations’ to Create the Future of Our World, by Hildy Gottlieb

5. Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet Poppendieck

6. What’s Love Got To Do With It? A Critical Look at American Charity, by David Wagner.

My former colleague at Kent University, Sarah Moore, wrote a similar book to King’s called: ‘Ribbon Culture: Charity, Compassion & Public Awareness’, which makes an interesting argument about the efficacy of symbolic acts such as ribbon wearing. I must admit the Singer and Moyo books are in my ‘to read’ pile and I wasn’t aware of Gottlieb and Poppendieck, but they’re now on my ‘to buy’ list.

But I must disagree about the Wagner book. It’s been a number of years since I read it but just a glimpse of the spine on my bookshelf brings back vivid recollections of the negativity contained within. The clue, of course, is in the title: What’s love got to do with it? is unlikely to be answered with a resounding “Lots!” and in the cover image, which is a sea of peanuts (subtle, huh?). Wagner is on a mission to reveal the selfish, guilt-ridden instincts that lie behind apparently innocent, compassionate acts and to prove that philanthropy is a big cover-up for the harshness of America’s free-market capitalism.

I’m a sociologist rather than a psychologist and I don’t pretend to know why people do what they do, but it seems as implausible to argue that philanthropy is entirely cynical and selfish as it is to argue that philanthropy is entirely selfless.

I think the ‘best books’ I chose in my last blog tread the line between these two extremes, acknowledging that one of the most distinctive features of philanthropy is its ability to meet the needs of both donors and recipients. Reductionist approaches that see philanthropy in black in white, the realm of only goodies or baddies, are misleading and harmful.

Ian Wilhelm of the Chronicle of Philanthropy also joined the debate about ‘best books’ and I fully concur with one of his choices – The Foundation: A Great American Secret by Joel Fleishman, which includes a great riposte to the cynics’ position:

“Large-scale charitable giving is not primarily the province of the robber barons racked by personal guilt over their depradations, no matter what amateur psychologists or historians with an anti-capitalist bent might assume”.

Hear hear, from both sides of the Atlantic.

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