Either-Or is Harmful to Charities and Society

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

Peter Singer’s Sunday, August 11 New York Times opinion piece entitled “Good Charity, Bad Charity” was a shocker. One would expect something a bit more far-reaching and not quite so simplistic from a bioethicist.

American philanthropy, individual to institutional, reflects support for charities that represent the entire human spectrum. People are multitasking in charitable giving, just as they have multiple passions in their lives. It is what you would expect from a diverse country with a rich history of charitable giving.

Pitting charitable sectors against each other is an unseemly answer to the betterment of a society that, hopefully, strives to both eradicate suffering and promote an informed and satisfied citizenry. As President of Grantmakers in the Arts, I was appalled by Mr. Singer’s use of a museum as an example of “bad charity.” What kind of society or civilization would not value its history enough to share it with future generations? That history, whether told through art, culture, medicine or politics, is the journey of humankind. Interestingly, a primary value of the arts and humanities is empathy, understanding and pronouncing the pain of others in order to improve our condition as human beings. The willingness to preserve artistic and cultural treasures and interpret events past and present is a valuable part of any society that deems itself caring about its world citizens.

More importantly, Mr. Singer’s premise that philanthropy is, or should be, single-minded is far off base. Most individuals give to a multitude of issues about which they feel passionate. Private and family foundations, community foundations and corporations are mostly multi-sector givers. The Foundation Center’s most recent analysis of private foundation giving, based on IRS data for 2011, shows 10% of private foundation gifts went to arts, culture and heritage. This means, obviously, that 90% of funding goes to other kinds of charities.

Mr. Singer’s premise is, unfortunately, reflective of a growing phenomenon of “winning at all costs” that seems to be pervasive in politics and media these days. There can’t be the complexity of compromise or sharing; there must be the single answer. As humans, we need to create and be inspired by the art around us, from our churches to our symphony halls. As humans, we also need to take care of those who need our help. We need to cure illnesses, protect the environment, provide education and encourage our children to understand the complexities of the human condition. We don’t do this with the “either-or” proposition of Mr. Singer. We do it by understanding our traditions of art, culture and heritage and by believing we can, if we really put our minds and money to it, have it all. We do it by saying “and.” Then there are only winners.