Less Generalisations, More Nuance Please
29 January 2019 at 7:55 am
Krystian Seibert rediscovers the value of nuance and considers how there can be a lot of generalisations when it comes to thinking about charities and philanthropy.
Charities are often the subject of criticism. Sometimes it’s justified, but more often than not it’s the product of making generalisations.
Too often in our public debates, in the media, in the political arena and even in expressing our opinions, we fall into the trap of making generalisations – me included.
That’s understandable. We want things to be simple. We want things to run according to some sort of formula. But things don’t work that way.
Life is full of nuance, and nuance is something that is clearly lacking at times – and I want to zero into a few areas where it’s lacking when it comes to charities and philanthropy. So here we go.
There are too many charities
How often do we hear the line that there are “too many charities in Australia”? For me, this statement is based on a gross generalisation. What matters is whether the charities in Australia are effective or not and whether they’re responding to community need. This is not something that can be boiled down to whether a single number is right or wrong.
And the reality is that some will be effective and some won’t be. We could perhaps do with many more charities in Australia, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in itself if they were effective. One question I ask when people say there are too many charities is, if that’s the case, then what is the “right” number of charities that we should have?
Charity CEOs are paid too much
This is a common refrain I read in the comments section of many articles about charities in the mainstream media, especially if it’s the charity fundraising or administration costs article that some newspapers like to serve up now and then (often misinterpreting the data for more dramatic effect).
It’s not something we hear much within the sector itself, which is not surprising because a) it’s unlikely people working in the sector would say they get paid too much and b) people working in the sector have a better idea of how much people are paid. But again, it’s a sweeping generalisation.
Based on what information I have, I would say that many charity CEOs probably aren’t paid nearly enough given the amount of work they do and the responsibility they have! That said, there will probably be some who are paid too much. Unfortunately, some expect everybody working for charities to be volunteers. Volunteers play a critical role in many charities and in our society more broadly – but charities can’t rely on them alone. To attract the right mix of people with the right skills, charities need to pay their staff properly.
Charities need to be more business-like
This is a criticism I hear now and then which really irks me. Arguably, it’s probably now more frowned upon than it was a few years ago, and is more likely to be challenged. It ties into the view that charities are somehow generally inefficient and businesses, with their profit motives, are the opposite.
Again, there will be charities which are more efficient and ones which are less efficient. But attributing this to a lack of business-like practices is a big generalisation. There are also lots of inefficient businesses around – and just because it may be efficient in one sense, and have a good share price, doesn’t reflect the broader impact it’s having in our society. If anything, the recent Banking Royal Commission has shown that business practices can also be good and bad, and many of the incentive structures businesses use can actually lead an organisation down the wrong path and have very bad consequences.
Philanthropy is a charade
Occasionally I hear the critique that philanthropy is just something wealthy people do to make themselves look good.
This is a critique that has gained even more ascendancy with the publication of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by journalist Anand Giridharadas (which is an interesting and engaging book that I highly recommend, although I don’t agree with a number of its key conclusions).
Again, the critique is based on a huge generalisation. It’s understandable that in some cases, philanthropy can come across as a charade. Take the actions of the Sackler family, whose company manufactures the opioid drug Oxycontin, which is partly responsible for the global opioid epidemic. The Sacklers are also very generous philanthropists, and in the past that has won them much applause, despite the damage their business does. There are other examples too.
But at the same time, it’s unfair to judge all philanthropists by the actions of a minority. In my time working closely with the philanthropic sector in Australia, I’ve been truly impressed by the genuine dedication and often humility of the many philanthropists I’ve met. I would say that for the vast majority of philanthropists, they put a lot of thought into their giving and are passionate about using giving to improve our society – they play a vital role supporting our civil society. My strong impression is that it’s certainly not a charade for them.
These are just some of the generalisations that I come across. But there are others, too many to detail in this article.
In the last year, I’ve moved into academia and become much more aware of the importance of good research methods and the need to use data and logic to make arguments. I still have a long journey in front of me, but it has been insightful. It’s made me much more conscious of the generalisations we all make, and that includes my own.
So in 2019 and beyond, I’m keen to see us rediscover the value of nuance. I’m not that optimistic that we’ll see that in our society as a whole, given the general state of public debate not just in Australia but around the world, but perhaps it’s something that we as the not-for-profit sector can be more forceful about.
About the author: Krystian Seibert is an Industry Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology and has a strategic advisory role with Philanthropy Australia.