A Lesson in Philanthropy or The Problem with “Giving it Away!”

August 1, 2019

Like most fundraisers I know, I’ve often thought wistfully of how wonderful it must be to be on the “other side” – to be a grant maker instead of a grant seeker. “It must be so great”, my colleagues and I might fantasize, “to give it away instead of always asking”.

I oversee foundation fundraising within the humanities and social sciences at Brown, a position at which I arrived by way of a deep professional and personal interest in the mechanics of foundation philanthropy.  The work of foundations is of strong importance to a healthy society, and wistfulness aside, I hope to someday have the opportunity to facilitate this impact as a foundation program officer.  Through my work as a part-time MA student, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities has provided valuable and nuanced insight into the fields I would like to support. I was therefore interested to learn of the course “Show me the Money: Philanthropy and Civil Society” to be offered in the spring 2019 semester, taught by Elizabeth Francis PhD’94 (AMST) and executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.  It was also a great opportunity for an engaged learning experience.

One evening several years ago, I heard a story on NPR about the Learning-by-Giving Foundation.  Established by Doris Buffett, sister of Warren Buffett, its mission is to “Inspire and train the next generation of leaders to be effective givers of their time, talent and treasure.”  To achieve this mission, the Foundation awards funding to courses on philanthropy at colleges and universities so that students can have the experience of undertaking the task of distributing grants within their immediate neighborhood. Brown has offered engaged philanthropy courses in the past, with funds provided by a private donor, but the last version had not been offered since 2015.  I was delighted to have the opportunity to develop a proposal, and even more so when Brown received an award of $10,000.  My motives were partly self-serving – I wanted to be able to take the class myself.  And as I had a practicum requirement to complete, I wanted to manage the grant as well. I couldn’t think of a better or more thorough way of undertaking an examination of foundation philanthropy and its impact on public humanities.

The course began in January 2019 with a discussion about the concept of civil society and its relationship to philanthropy.  In doing so, we grappled with the question of who we are, as Brown students, to be distributing funds within the community.  It was a question we put to Shanna O’Berry, a Learning-by-Giving Foundation program officer, who visited our class early in the semester.  “We are asked that question all the time, by students all over the country,” Shanna responded. (Brown was one of 31 Learning-by-Giving grant recipients in the 2018-2019 academic year).  “We want students to learn that everyone can be a philanthropist.  Philanthropy, in its many forms, is not dictated or limited by circumstances.”

Off we went to learn the historical, ethical, and critical aspects of philanthropy while simultaneously organizing ourselves into a grant-making organization from the ground up: establishing our mission statement, deciding what we wanted our grants to accomplish, and developing teams to take on the many and varied tasks involved in effective grant making. In doing so we determined the size and quantity of our grants: from the $10,000 available to us, we would make two awards of $5,000 each.

It was in week 4, titled “Capitalism, Philanthropy and Wealth” that my previous romantic notions of foundation work started to fray. We read Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth (1889), referred to by Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, as the “intellectual charter of modern philanthropy.”[1]  Walker’s 2015 response to Carnegie, in Toward a new Gospel of Wealth, confusingly calls for an updated definition of effective philanthropy while pointing to the systems that enabled the creation of wealth and led to the establishment of such philanthropic powerhouses as the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. Even more troubling, week 6, titled “Whose Responsibility is it Anyway?  Government, Philanthropy and the Non-Profit Sector” included a 2013 New York Times op-ed, “The Charitable Industrial Complex” by Peter Buffett (nephew of Doris, who funded our class —a poignancy that was not lost on my classmates).  In his article, Mr. Buffett commented that “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”[2]

In an interesting stroke of timeliness, it the moment this spring when a number of prominent humanities organizations, including the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums, as well as Brown, were being challenged to account for the impact of philanthropic support and the origins of that support.  Our class discussions were lively.  We debated the outsized role philanthropy plays in how humanities organizations, from major museums to out-of-school programs, sustain themselves now and in the past - questions that are rarely discussed in a humanities context and are only now developing a significant scholarship.

By this point in the semester we were preparing to distribute our carefully crafted request for proposals among the 97 non-profit organizations in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls that aligned with our mission to support “programs and projects [that] cultivate creativity, education, and/or culture”.  I was struck: were we simply perpetuating a highly fraught system designed to maintain unequitable structural dynamics?

Among the main undertakings of the class was a close examination of the various roles within philanthropy.  The response to our RFP showed me that instead of undertaking fruitless argument with the system to which Peter Buffett and others referred, the immediate task at hand was to engage fully in our project, learn about the applicant organizations, and concentrate on how I could help to address the needs of the community by serving as an effective, informed and thoughtful grant maker.

Our request for proposals garnered 16 responses from organizations across the greater Providence area.  It was a thoroughly inspiring view of the range of work being undertaken in the service of area youth, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Our job was to examine each proposal through the lens of the RFP we had developed and determine alignment with our goals.

With the help of a carefully constructed rubric, the class worked as a team to narrow the applicant pool to five finalists.  The final review included site visits to each one and it was at this point that the undertaking became even more real than it had been: we were meeting people doing work that was having an enormous and immediate impact on the community.  Although it was exciting to consider the difference we would be making on the health of two of these organizations, it was difficult to know that we would be declining requests from three.  And it also made me consider that the impact I seek to make as a humanities practitioner might be made not from within a foundation, but from within a community-based organization.

The final decision on our grantees was made on the second-to-last week of class, titled “Toward a New Civil Society, Cultural Equity, and Challenges to and for Philanthropy.”  We discussed Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, and Carlton Turner’s essay Why We Can’t Achieve Cultural Equity by Copying Those in Power.  And here I was, facilitating a process by which we would determine the organizations that would receive our grants.  Our coursework had served to amplify the point that no amount of reading and class discussion would adequately prepare me for a task I was undertaking from an academic rather than a lived experience.

Everett Logo.pngBut as was intended from the outset of our class, it was a team undertaking, and as a team we came together to reach consensus.  A grant was awarded to Everett: Company, Stage & School, an intergenerational, multicultural company of professional artists that creates original concert works and video productions, and mentors new generations of young artists.  Women's Refugee League.pngThe other was awarded to Women’s Refugee Care, which facilitates the transition of refugee families from the Great Lakes Region of Africa to life in Rhode Island by helping them become self-sufficient and productive while maintaining their cultural and ethnic identities.  Both of our grants will have a substantial impact on the programming of these two organizations and the individuals they serve.

If in undertaking this work our class was at a disadvantage in terms of lived experience as a result of a flawed system, we did develop an understanding that an important impact on the common good is one that takes place in spite of a flawed system. Through this class I have come to understand that this is among the most critical aspects of a civil society.  And in returning to my day job as a grant seeker I was reminded that public humanities practitioners can develop more sophisticated approaches to grant seeking when they possess an understanding of the dynamics of philanthropy and what lies behind the stated criteria on a foundation's website.

It was a humbling experience to have met with our grantees on the last day of the semester and learn more about how they would benefit from the grants we had awarded.  I’m proud of the work we did and confident that, even if these awards were not made within a perfect system, they were made with a level of care that perhaps helped to ameliorate the imperfection.


Rebecca Rex is a second year MA student in Public Humanities and Associate Director of Foundation Relations at Brown.  She is interested in how the humanities can be deployed to address social issues, and the philanthropic mechanisms that enable this process.

Thanks to Elizabeth Francis for her thoughtful guidance around this project and reading of this post.

This post makes reference to readings from “Show Me the Money: Philanthropy and Civil Society” and for those interested in learning more we have appended here the full syllabus for Dr. Francis’s seminar. — Ed.


[1] Darren Walker, “Toward a new gospel of wealth” Ford Foundation, retrieved from website: https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/toward-a-new-gospel-of-wealth/

[2] Peter Buffett, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex,” The New York Times, (July 26, 2013): https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/the-charitable-industrial-complex.html