Philanthrocapitalism: Michael Edwards vs. Matthew Bishop

Matthew Bishop of The Economist coined the word Philanthrocapitalism in early 2006. Earlier this year, Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation published Just Another Emperor: The myths and realities of philanthrocapitalism, which was highly critical of the concept.

Today, the Global Philanthropy Forum hosts an online debate between Bishop and Edwards with comments open to the public. Give the two sides a read and leave your thoughts. I think that the intellectual struggle over the idea of philanthrocapitalism is one of the most important debates going on today. How the world comes to define and understand the phrase (and especially the tools and knowledge frameworks of the concept), may very well define philanthropy in the 21st century.

You will find the debate here.

Update: the debate is churning along and regular readers will recognize a number of Tactical Philanthropy readers in the mix. Come join the conversation!


  1. hi Sean, is Micahel my new name in Aramaic, and do you know something I don’t? Tks, Mike (or at least Michael) Edwards

  2. Sorry about that Mike. I’ve corrected the post title.

  3. Brendan says:

    Great link Sean. I tend to agree with you that philanthrocapitalism is generally a good thing. I can’t help but think that the act of labeling the concept has caused half the argument given that the interplay between for-profit and non-profits seems to be evolving all the time.
    One respondent defended non-profits by saying that volunteers sacrifice their time and money, but who would do that in a business? To me this seems like it only reinforces the point that perhaps we should try to find a better way to solve the world’s problems. Obviously it is a wonderful thing that people donate their time and effort, but he only seems to be pointing out that in the current non-profit scheme people need to sacrifice their financial well-being in order to contribute. Wouldn’t those same people be the first to sign up for a job that allowed them to make money while getting gratification working for a cause they believed in? I think it would be dangerous for us to allow the psychology of previous investment to hinder us from transitioning into a world where employees of for-profit businesses not only find more meaning at work but perhaps we also find a more effective means of addressing global crises. Perhaps philanthrocapitalism will fail, but we’ll never know until we try.

  4. Great points Brenden. What would you call Philanthrocapitalism instead? In a world where many people in philanthropy are openly antagonistic to the concept of capitalism, it is no wonder that the phrase gets so many people going!

  5. Brendan says:

    Your question highlights the point I was trying to get at in a roundabout way, so thanks for that. We live in a pretty impatient world and a culture that has a case of collective OCD – as soon as a social trend or cultural phenomenon emerges we feel a strong desire to label and compartmentalize it. I’m not quite sure if “philanthrocapitalism” is well formed enough to deserve an official name yet. I think that there’s still a lot of crossing over to occur between the for-profit and non-profit worlds and general trial and error before we find out if what we know now as philanthrocapitalism is even a good idea. I could be wrong though, maybe I’m just being too cautious. In either case, what’s happening is more productive than anything 15 or 20 years ago, so having a problem with a name isn’t the worst thing ever.

  6. Yes, it is a good problem to have, I agree! I think the reason why another name is important is because many people in the nonprofit world think that “capitalism” is a dirty word (obviously I don’t agree). Many people in the Third Sector see their choice to work in this area as an explicit rejection of working in the private sector.

    Matthew Bishop who coined the word, writes for The Economist clearly did not mean the word to have negative connotations, but you can see in the way that Michael Edwards and the people that support his view use the word, that they see the inclusion of “capitalist” as a negative.

    It is probably a well defined word, it just isn’t great for marketing or getting buy in from the philanthropy side.

  7. Brendan says:

    I would have to agree with you that the world “capitalism” has developed a negative connotation, especially in light of the pattern of corporate misbehavior in the past decade. While a dubious stance towards capitalism is definitely understandable, I think this suspicion points out that there seems to be a prevailing tendency to consider it almost as an ideology instead of what it really is- an economic system. I posted on just this issue recently (The Two Face of the Developing World) because I myself had for years taken a negative stance towards capitalism because I thought it was an intrinsically parasitic system. Recently, however, I’ve realized that individual malfeasance has had more to do with these wrongdoings than capitalism itself. In this light, it’s hard for me not to be optimistic that done the right way capitalism can be a great boon for the developing world. I think we’ve only begun to see the tip of the iceberg in these new efforts. The bottom line is that whether you work for a charitable institution or not, your end goal should be to create solutions and just because you’ve approached a problem the same way for many years does not necessarily mean it’s the best or most efficient method. Perhaps we will find that philanthrocapitalism falls flat on its face, but for right now I don’t think we can ignore its incredible potential and I certainly don’t think we should be too worried about whether or not it espouses capitalistic behavior. In the end it comes down to human morality.

  8. Good point Brendan. I think that “philanthropy” has certain ideological connotations the same way that “capitalism” does. Because of that people in this debate tend to make a whole series of ideological assumptions about “the other side”, that do not always hold true.

  9. Jason Dick says:

    I saw that book a few months ago and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. I don’t agree with Michael’s core thesis, but I really enjoyed the book (I read it in one sitting on a long plane flight) and I did agree with most of Michel’s recommendations that he lists at the end of the book.

    Net-net, I think Michael and I probably agree on a lot.