“Making money is hard–but giving it away is even harder” is a common refrain I’ve heard from successful entrepreneurs and foundations. Tim Sullivan addresses this problem in The Philanthropist’s Burden in the December 2016 Harvard Business Review.
Sullivan discusses Tracy Kidder’s book, A Truck Full of Money, on the Paul English, the founder of Kayak who has struggled to find good outlet for his philanthropic work just like Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and others. Sullivan refers to Poverty, Inc. in discussing some of the pitfalls in philanthropic efforts to alleviate in global poverty.
English did have other options. He could have decided to donate a significant sum to some well-established charity organization, one that appears to be doing God’s work in eradicating global poverty. But even in that direction lie hidden dangers, exposed by a 2014 documentary, Poverty, Inc., that explores the equilibrium that the international aid community and social entrepreneurship have created in the developing world. Director Michael Matheson Miller reviews the situation in Haiti in particular and in some sub-Saharan African countries, and finds that the perfectly legitimate desire to help, which often manifests itself in the form of cash and in-kind donations, keeps the developing world in its developing state. Gifts from individual philanthropists, nonprofits, governments, and socially conscious businesses have created a state of dependence. When a country is awash in free money, free clothes, and free food from the developed world, it’s nearly impossible for local farmers and entrepreneurs, even formerly successful ones, to compete. Industry dries up, but the residents can’t always rely on specific kinds of aid, since it’s inconsistently delivered.
We are called to be generous and give, but as Poverty, Inc. stresses, while a heart for the poor is essential, we also need a mind for the poor so don’t end up causing more harm than help.