The Disenchantment of Philanthropy

ZeusIn recent posts I’ve explored the “creative tension” between rigor and moral clarity, described effective philanthropy as a process of “learning how to love”, and published a guest post by Phil Buchanan about the need for passion to animate data driven philanthropy. At the risk having readers keep using the word “mushy” to describe the current narrative, I want to draw a connection between philanthropy and a philosophy book I’ve been reading.

All Things Shining, a new best selling philosophy book (is that an oxymoron?), argues in part that the core human drive is to experience moments of “whooshing up”. Whether found in religion, sporting events or acts of philanthropy, the authors argue that these moments of feeling taken over and connected are the core experience of being human.

The book examines the shift from earlier periods of civilization when humans had no doubt about the meaning of their life, to today’s “disenchanted” period being characterized by a search for meaning.

The authors write:

The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit?

To pose the question this way is to mock the traditional story of the West. At least since Hegel, in the early nineteenth century, the narrative of Western history has been one of progress. We have learned to think of the Enlightenment, or some more recent period, as the pinnacle of this steady advance. The self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s advance.

There is, to be sure, a traditional counterstory as well, a story that sees our current disenchanted state as the result of accumulating decline and loss. Nostalgia pervades this counterview: it rejects the contemporary, disenchanted world in favor of an earlier, enchanted age. The burden of standing as one’s own free ground; the arid, ruthless path of reason’s march; the sad inertness of a world explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s decline.

But what if neither story is right? What if the idea that both stories share—that wonder and enchantment have been left behind—is instead a misunderstanding of the contemporary world? What if we haven’t lost the sacred, shining gods, but have simply lost touch with the meanings they offer?

Indeed, both smug celebration of our progress and nostalgic regret at our loss are misguided. The nihilistic burden of our secular age undermines the idea of progress, while the meaningful possibilities on the margins of our secular world cast doubt upon the idea of loss.

I believe that this story and counterstory are at work in philanthropy today. On the one hand we have the “effective philanthropists”, who believe in “the self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled.” On the other hand we have a wide range of people uncomfortable with this new narrative, who feel sadness at the prospect of “a world explained and controlled”.

I believe that neither of these narratives are correct. While I believe in the application of logic to solve social problems, I doubt the potential for humans to master the dynamic world in which we live through “theories of change”. On the other hand, while I believe that the ruthless application of logic to philanthropy risks destroying the empathetic urge that animates our field in the first place, I doubt the potential for good intentions to actually turn into good results simply because we wish they would.

I would like to believe that the effective philanthropy movement has not left behind the “wonder and enchantment” that drives humans to universally engage in philanthropy. In Gara LaMarche’s call for us to “re-invigorate our moral discourse” I see a call not for us to return to an earlier time of enchanted philanthropy, but instead to re-examine the meaning of the “sacred, shining gods” – love, empathy, passion, morality – that give rise to acts of philanthropy.

Effective philanthropy without these sacred, shining gods truly is an oxymoron. Philanthropy without love is a disenchanted act for a nihilistic world.

As we look to reconcile these narratives, we must heed the authors of All Things Shining when they warn us that both the “smug celebration of our progress and nostalgic regret at our loss are misguided”.


  1. Rachael Barrett says:

    Thanks Sean for this series on the morality of giving. As one on the other end of the philanthropic gesture (asking for donations/investments/support), I was reminded of an article that appeared in America magazine in 2008. Written by Kerry Robinson, director of development at St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, she reminds us of the call to be wise stewards. The article clearly fosters a Catholic sensibility to giving and receiving, however, I do find it appealing outside of that context.

  2. Renata J. Rafferty says:

    So much meat to address, but I’ll limit myself to two points …

    1. RE: All Things Shining …

    “The authors write:

    The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit?”

    What a simplistic perspective on the ancients, based as it is solely on extant writings and artifacts that themselves reflected the perspectives of the educated and aristocratic classes of their times, and likely bore little relation to the daily concerns, thoughts and pain of the “unwashed masses.”

    Homer’s “enchanted world” was exactly that … HOMER’S enchanted world and that of his educated and insightful peers.

    We have not “descended” from that world — we are still as fractured a society, a society of “haves” and “have nots,”the “caring” and “uncaring.” the “seeking” and the “content,” as we have been from the beginning of time.

    Thus, I reject the book’s authors’ premise — it has not been proven.

    2. “Philanthropy” without love? Duh! Philanthropos …” the love of mankind.” Of course, there IS no philanthropy without love, only giving and, possibly, charity.

    The “problem” with philanthropy is not a problem with philanthropy at all. It is the ages-old problem with the simple maxim “love one another.” We don’t. And until we do, we can spend hours and millions and words upon words on tactical, strategic, effective, data-driven, organized, and even “dinosaur” philanthropy, but our world will remain, fundamentally, unchanged.

    I feel ashamed that I have the audacity to expound on “philanthropy” when I still turn my head uncomfortably from the man at the stoplight begging for change, wondering if he is truly in need or simply a con. When I step on the accelerator without rolling down my window, without even a kind word, I’ve decided the answer … an answer no different than that of most people in Homer’s time, Jesus’ time, Muhammad’s time, Martin Luther King’s Mother Teresa’s or Mandela’s time.

    Yes, mankind has made progress — industrial, technological, scientific progress — of that there is no doubt. Social progress? Maybe. Philanthropic progress? Doubtful. Have we grown in love, in loving one another, in loving others — ALL others — as we love ourselves?

    I posit that our “investment” in philanthropy accurately reflects the depth of our love for all others. And perhaps our fixation — my own fixation — on the “effectiveness” of our philanthropy is simply a clever and “worthy” excuse for not loving as deeply and open-handedly and uncynically as we have been called to love by the great, the spiritual, and the truly loving men and women that have been sent to us through the ages to model real philanthropos.

    Relinquishing the soapbox.

    Renata J. Rafferty

    • Re: Point 1. The authors are describing two competing narratives. Not saying that one is correct. I won’t try to speak on behalf of the authors, but my sense is that they were simply arguing that in the time of Homer, the Greeks did not wonder about their place in the world, they knew what that place was. But that may well be wrong. I’m not an expert in this area at all!

      Re: Point 1: You’re getting at the same issue I was trying to get at, but you rant better than me! :^) But unfortunately I have to disagree with the idea that it is a no brainer that there is no philanthropy without love. I’ve NEVER heard the word “love” uttered at a philanthropy conference. Certainly never at a gathering of those intent on effective philanthropy. Your point that we will never be effective simply through figuring out technocratic solution if we won’t also “learn how to love” is very much the way I look at all of this.

      Thanks Renata.

  3. Renata J. Rafferty says:

    Sean — How is it we’ve never been at the same philanthropy conference? Every time I speak about philanthropy, whether in a formal setting or just jawboning with colleagues and interested others, I place the etymology of “philanthropy” front and center. Let’s start a movement to make everyone in our field reference “love of mankind” as the essential definition of philanthropy. Or we could simply change the name of our field to “donation- making in an effort to change the human condition.” 😉

  4. Daniel Robinson says:

    I wonder if the roots of philanthropy with out explicit mention of love might date to Carnegie, Rockefeller, Rowntree, et al. and the origins of scientific philanthropy in the early 20th Century i.e. philanthropy as an essentially rational and scientific enterprise. It would be easy to see how something subjective such as love would get sidelined in the context of a more positivist discourse.

    En passant this side of the pond (i.e. the UK) the term charity does not have the same pejorative overtones that I think it does in the USA judging from the available literature and correspondence. Etymologically charity carries much the same meaning as philanthropy i.e. an unconditional selfless love of humanity. Whether its charity or philanthropy, if our actions are conducted without passion and compassion, then I suspect there is a real danger that said actions will be devoid of both meaning and impact.

    • Your comment makes a lot of sense to me Daniel. It does make sense that as philanthropy has become an “industry”, the enterprise has become the focus rather than the meaning. Especially as large foundations have built professional staff who themselves are not the ones giving away their own money, the practice of giving has become an end unto itself rather than an action meant as an act of love.

      The charity/philanthropy debate in the US is kind of silly in my mind. I think it is often meant to distinguish reactive action (giving because someone asked) or thoughtless action (giving without much reflection on the decision) from the “intentional, proactive” action of “philanthropy”. I’m not one to belittle charity.

  5. Mark Rubin says:

    I may be in over my head here, but for me the “connection” comes when I can share my passion for helping others with someone else, and bring them into the fold. The thinking part is critical, as is the feeling part, but right now my worry is that we don’t have enough people who have the time and the brains to think about and implement all of the really cool stuff we all discuss on all of these wonderful blogs. Getting someone to part with some money and time/expertise–my current platform is Social Venture Partners, so all three are important–leaves me “feelin’ the love.”

  6. Michele F Gartner says:

    Sean, this post really caught my attention. I like considering philanthropy through this type of lens – particularly, when I feel uneasy with the nature of the ‘industry’ which we’ve created.

    An area of interest for me is non-Western forms of philanthropy. Some will say, ‘no such thing.’ But in truth (and it’s not mushy) there have been methods of giving and reasons for doing for millenia that we rarely consider in what we’ve built today.

    Like many things, when we’re in our own perspective – we don’t often consider there are other ways of doing. The conversations we have created in Western Philanthropy are very much indicative of our narrow view.

    Thanks for opening the conversation.

  7. Eric G. says:

    How about “rediscover” rather than “re-examine” the meaning of the shining gods – i.e. love, empathy, passion, morality – and how these things bring rise to our philanthropy and guide it? These aren’t new concepts here and we are not going to discover new ways to effectively use them. That’s been done a million times. Guiding ourselves by these principles through formal philanthropy is not exclusive of effective, formal, ethical, logical, and thoughtful philanthropy.

    • Well if you mean re-discover in terms of once again valuing these values, then I agree. But if you mean go back to how we were, then I disagree and would suggest that the idea falls into the camp of those who believe in the “traditional counterstory”. By using “re-examine” I guess I mean examine how these values can be integrated into the “Enlightenment” narrative.

  8. M Ruz says:

    Recognising Renata’s perspective on the etymology of “philanthropy” I struggle to see why this definition is important, whether a contribution is made out of love, a sense of obligation or its close relative guilt, or because someone just feels “it’s time” is not overly pertinent from my perspective.

    Note: this is not an “end justifies the means” type statement – i.e. robbery to get funds to donate out of a feeling of guilt is obviously not appropriate.

    Once we get past the internal value alignment issue (is the vehicle and target consistent with my personal values) then the key concern for me is the answer to the external value equation – Are whatever resources that are being contributed being applied with maximum efficacy? That is a question for another post 🙂