Philanthropy as a Pathology

An essay on philanthropy that I began in 2009 at the request of Orion Magazine has at last appeared. But it’s not at Orion. It’s at the new intellectual organ of the Occupy movement, Jacobin Magazine. The backstory for the essay is below. The rest of the essay is now up at the Jacobin site.

http://jacobinmag.com/spring-2012/the-philanthropic-complex/

In the fall of 2009 I was approached by Hal Clifford, editor of Orion Magazine, and asked to write an essay about American philanthropy, especially in relation to environmentalism. From the first I was dubious about the assignment. I said, “Not-for-profit organizations like you cannot afford to attack philanthropy because if you attack one foundation you may as well attack them all. You’ll be cutting your own throat.”

Hal assured me that while all this might be true someone had to take up the issue, and Orion was willing to do so. And I was the right person to write the essay precisely because I was not an insider but simply an honest intelligence. So, with many misgivings I said I’d try.

I interviewed about a dozen people on both sides of the field, both givers and getters, and some in the middle. The people I spoke to were eager to articulate their grievances even if they were just as eager to be anonymous. I also should acknowledge that the development of these grievances was no doubt colored by my own experiences as a board member and president of the board of two not-for-profit organizations in the arts.

After working for several months writing and revising the essay, Hal Clifford announced that he would be leaving Orion. My first thought was “uh-oh.” The managing editor, Chip Blake, took over my essay and at that point things got dicey. Ultimately he explained that he hadn’t been fully aware of my assignment, that he hadn’t known the essay would be an attack on “the oligarchy,” that it didn’t seem to be fully a part of the magazine’s usual interests, and that–fatally–from the magazine’s point of view publishing the essay would be an exercise in “self-mutilation.”

Which was exactly what I said at the beginning! They had come to their senses even if it had taken a long time and cost me a lot of work to get there.

But, secretly, I was pleased. This editorial catastrophe was the best possible confirmation of everything I argue in the essay.

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