Money Well Spent (2nd Edition) Forum

“Don’t Cry for Me, Organize!–Political Organizing, The Strength of Communities, or the Limits of Predictive Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: Concluding HistPhil‘s forum on Money Well Spent, Tiffany Willoughby-Herard reflects on the text, her scholarship on race and philanthropy, and her lived experiences in everyday life. Alluding to Money Well Spent’s subtitle, “A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy,” Willoughby-Herard recommends that the “best plan ‘for smart philanthropy’ would speak to the collective rather than the individual. And rather than solving societal problems effectively and strategically as the authors stress, it would give form to and facilitate the movement of all of us into a consciousness of being members of a beloved community.”

As a scholar of race and philanthropy in a global context and as a political theorist, I have concluded that the science of philanthropy hinges not just on the enduring nature of inequality and institutionalized human greed but on long histories of autonomy, power, the collective identities of oppressed peoples and self-determination being suppressed in the process of giving. And yet philanthropy, as described by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey in Money Well Spent (2018), is also a set of practices: using scientific modeling to determine whether it does good, how it does good, whether it creates more harm, and whether it is using its extraordinary concentrations of wealth in ways that lessen immediate and long term suffering. But we must remember that measuring, assessing, and gathering data in the hands of the powerful are also techniques of surveillance and conquest and ways of managing difference.

To be clear, I am not a philanthropy practitioner. And I measure my relative success in doing good by the immemorial impact we as communities make when we choose to root our actions in egalitarianism. For as much as I am a student of the history of philanthropy, in my everyday life, I know more about giving from the lived communal practices and philosophies that animate my work as a teacher, a Black mother in US society, a student of radical gendered black movements across the globe, an organizer, and a member of a sacred worship community. I won’t ever be able to see the real and genuine long-term impact of the good I do in the world in the tangible ways described in this book. My work is planting seeds for 120 generations of the living and the dead, the human and the non-human.

This is not because the ways I practice sharing are about needs that are less immediate. Rather, it is because the immediate terrain of measurement and data collection that shape the information being conveyed by the authors is not within my control. I do not have control over what my students come to understand as the ethical in my classroom. I do not have control over what kind of persons my sons become even as I teach them to mother themselves and everything they come into contact with. I do not have control over and I cannot predict how studying historical and contemporary movements and how political organizing, and praying and meditating transform the world as I perceive it. And yet, following the words of writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, I know that these actions shift the energetic conditions of possibilities and bring separated space and time conjunctures into my field of vision through imagination.[1] And when I think that my actions have more capacity to predict and dictate the future than they actually do, that is actually when I know that my work has gone wrong and has missed the mark. It is my belief that ending suffering is ancestral work and though we are called to do that work of giving and sharing it is not the work of special people, or wealthy people. And if it is scientific work it relies on the empiricism of humility, empathy, and accompanying people in despair until Spirit guides us beyond.

This is because my definition of doing good is collective rather than individual. And so, the moment I perceive myself privileging the value and importance of my own individual actions, I realize that I am missing the mark toward the good. In other words, under my sense of what it means to do good, my actions only work and having meaning inasmuch as they give form to and facilitate the movement of all of us, into a consciousness of being members of a beloved community—both human and non-human, both living and dead.

As a teacher and a researcher my impact will not, to use terms from Money Well Spent, be measured effectively by the algorithms of “impact” or “deliverables” that reduces everybody else to objects of study to be measured and categorized. Such formulas generally replicate the significance, worth, and reach of the same old type of scholarship (typically by powerful and privileged white males and those others who aspire to their power and position. Instead, I address suffering from a long duree perspective that requires my individual actions, and those of the institutions that I operate in and can wield power through, to be coupled with those of many other people—some known to me and some that I will never know. I organize with some people to end suffering through shared sacred life and practices, and I organize with other people through extending trust across the category of “stranger” to knock on doors in my neighborhood and mobilize voters. But, I also organize with people through art-making and world-beautifying strategies offering nourishment and replenishment in my daily interactions on the internet. I respond to emails with carefully crafted letters that affirm and give voice to tenderness and empathy and tolerance in myself and in others. I also organize with people to stop traffic, to interrupt the flow of daily living, to express my non-complicity with what Brad Werner calls “capitalist outrages,” and to conduct the daily and miniature scale political organizing of showing up to Police Commission and other local government meetings week after week after week.

Is that philanthropy? Well, yes. In the sense that such actions regard my self-in-the-world as linked to the selves of other people. In the sense that such actions affirm that I share a category of life force and life inheritance and life responsibility with others who share what Oyeronke Oyewumi has called a “world sense,” as opposed to a world “view” and its pre-occupations with reducing most of the planet to being merely bodies (presumably, without minds and spirits and wills and desires and histories and futures and ways of understanding that incorporate the living and the dead/the human and the non-human).

I was taught by my teacher, Cedric Robinson, not to concede to the elitism that marks most human beings “as human wreckage” and as disposable. That means that the impulse to face my own and the suffering of others directly, honestly, immediately, and with empathy, in my life, is always joined with an insistence on affirming people’s (and my own) capacity to be and claim authority and power in their (our) own lives. At the same time that institutionalized and deeply systemic centuries-long violence is wreaking havoc and undoing people in the most intimate ways, I am also always singing back to people how their rebellion and resistance lands well in my heart. That I can echo back self-determination and collective commitments to justice that may not register on most Western indexes of value means that the kind of work that I and so many others do cannot be measured in the ways described in this very thorough book.

And so, what makes a book like Money Well Spent challenging for me to draw from, despite the incredible level of research and the wide range of examples and scales of analysis that it draws from (from immunization to housing-first policies from providing support for heroin-users to support for methadone treatment enrollees) is that I have written a history of philanthropy, Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (2015), that shored up deep systematic racial, economic, and gendered violence in the United States and South Africa over decades. That policy intervention was inaugurated by an organization that today underwrites public radio and democracy and freedom both within and outside the U.S. In the past, though, it understood its toolkit for aid and assisting the poor on the global stage to be primarily limited to those “embarrassing” white persons whose station in life and manners and cultural mores did not reflect the misbegotten promises of white supremacy—status, achievement, heteronormativity, bourgeois home-making, individualism, rationality, domestic and social order.

Specifically focused on the Carnegie Corporation’s funding of The Poor White Study in 1920s South Africa, for example, I have detailed in Waste of a White Skin how the foundation found particular sympathy with such poor whites as the ringer for not extending the same sympathy to blacks. Poor white people were deemed redeemable while African people, if poor, were deemed as authentic representations of cultures of the past, thereby diminishing an entire history of African political economy and African people’s philosophies about economic justice and maldistribution of wealth. Scholars Keletso Adkins and Zine Magubane, among others, have explored this in great detail.

When poor white persons could not respond to the carrot of their children being detained in orphanages, their daughters being subject to abuse of all kinds while domestic workers, and their husbands and fathers being confined to forced labor “resettlement colonies” a more careful and measured set of treatments was brought to bear. They were subject to subtle surveillance and monitoring and nearly constant behavioral management until as a group they could internalize and reproduce the values of an orderly racial hierarchy and do the bidding of racial subjection almost without thinking.

I must admit, the twenty years that I spent studying the history of philanthropy and its meaning for consolidating racial power in several countries [from the United States to South Africa and back again] has shaped the suspicion that I have today for philanthropic projects marshalling the tools of up-scaling and transfer across regional contexts. On this point, for example, I have taken particular notice of Paul Brest and Hal Harvey’s section on “Generalizability and the Challenge of Replicating a Successful Program,” in the fifth chapter of Money Well Spent.

Because what I have seen work (in an ethical sense) across contexts is not philanthropy, but rather, resistance politics empowering people to address their conditions locally and enabling them to be in solidarity with other people addressing their conditions in other spaces. So as much as I appreciate Brest and Harvey’s calls to compare and contrast local conditions before generalizing the value of a grant-making decision across time and space, I push back on the very value of philanthropic work as defined in this book. To be clear, it is not that comparison and generalizability do not matter, but it is whose comparison and generalizability, perhaps, that for scholars like me, matters most. Ron LaFrance, a Cayuga elder and professor of Rural Sociology at Cornell University and one of the founders of the Akwe:kon Residential College, where I studied in my youth modeled a belief in “all of us” in naming the first place I lived on that campus “Akwe:kon”. All of us, not some. But, all of us. Who is coming to show up and why and where does their mandate to prove that they helped solve a particular problem come from?

In novels like Bessie Head’s iconic When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), Gilbert and Makhaya and Paulina become leaders and prove helpful because 1) they arrive in places as fugitives from someplace else, and 2) they arrive in places where people have been changed forever by learning to live with the suffering of a harsh and inclement climate. They arrive in a town called Golem Mmidi founded by people who have also been pushed out of other places and who cannot live together based on the ease of kinship but must choose to be in other’s space with great deliberation; people who ultimately toss out a capricious and vicious local governor—through the power of their stares. In today’s post-Black Lives Matter parlance and drawing heavily from Ella Baker’s organizing strategies, we call places like Golema Mmidi, “leader-full.”

This scenario of people working on their own problems and refusing to be broken shows up in so much “world literature” and I wonder if the sentiments of being and the openness of spirit that such literary works expose in the heart of their readers are also part of the public policy mandate of the organizations being analyzed in Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy. To be plain, such literary works rely on characterizations of the most impoverished people becoming their own damn leaders. Such works reveal that myths about people in Africa and in the African Diaspora waiting for North Americans to spend their money, well, are fabrications of the most astonishing sort.

The poor, and the societal problems that philanthropy takes on to solve, we are told, we always have with us. But perhaps what is more challenging than the existence of the poor is the habits of minds that make us come to see each other: some as the poor and some as the gifted; some as the impoverished and some as the inheritors. I am not being naïve here; I am challenging us to think like Amartya Sen and Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva and other people who have offered paradigm-shifts in how we approach the forces that lay waste to people’s energy and genius. And how soon are we going to begin to address the questions of power that philanthropy sometimes minimizes and placates and prevents us from speaking more candidly about?

None of us can be fully extricated from the world that philanthropy makes—it is webbed through the military and government and civil society and linguistic structures that make up how we understand what society is. And yet what some of us do as “philanthropy” has much more to do with political philosophy and story-telling and coming to voice—a deep love for humanity and non-humanity, and a deep love for the living and the dead. It is not clear to me from my reading of Money Well Spent, a text that may be most useful for helping the unelected wealthy better govern societal problems rather than being part of our collective communities, whether the egalitarianism necessary to transform society has been considered or deliberately elided. And so, I finished reading Money Well Spent much as I now finish this review: Believing that the best plan “for smart philanthropy” would speak to the collective rather than the individual. And rather than solving societal problems effectively and strategically as the authors stress, it would give form to and facilitate the movement of all of us into a consciousness of being members of a beloved community.

-Tiffany Willoughby-Herard

Tiffany Willoughby-Herard (Associate Professor, African American Studies, University of California, Irvine) is author of Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (University of California Press 2015). Her new research is about theorizing migration and Black women’s politics in South Africa in a new way. Not only did gendered black consciousness–as a set of practices and political commitments—migrate into and out of formal institutional politics but, these ideas and the people who held them migrated across multiple systems and territories of legalized violence. To study migration in this way requires analysis of the uninterrupted nature of gendered black consciousness, the continuous undercarriage of activities, institutions, and relationships that subverted the influence of apartheid nation-building domestically, globally, and throughout Southern Africa.


[1] Words of Wild Survival: Wombs, Wounds, Wasteland, Water University of California Humanities Research Institute Faculty Seminar on Creative Writing, Sept 10, 2018.

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