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The End of Philanthropy: A Re-Vision

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In U.S. history books, well-known philanthropists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller are described as generous and charitable. They donated part of their great wealth to good causes such as building schools and libraries. However, what is often overlooked in this version of history is that the very basis of their philanthropy was inequality. Their fortunes were built on the backs of working people, whose labor and minimal wages allowed those at the top to accumulate large amounts of money, which they used to build mansions for themselves filled with extravagant possessions. They gave a portion of their money to good causes. Meanwhile, those who were the actual source of their wealth often could barely afford to feed themselves and their families. This scenario continues today.

The United States was created as a radical departure from the rigid hierarchy of kings, queens, and royalty, and the accompanying servant class. Democracy, an equal society based on individual freedom and shared resources, was an experiment that many thought would fail. It hasn’t failed, but it hasn’t fulfilled its promise either (perhaps because slavery was part of it). We still have hierarchies in place, not based in bloodlines but in fierce competition that pits individuals against each other to garner a place at the top of the economic and social pyramid. We don’t have kings, but we have billionaire entrepreneurs and entertainment moguls instead. And we have a collective consciousness, promulgated by those in power, which encourages the average person to admire the rich and famous and strive to be like them.

The cards, however, are stacked against ordinary citizens because of an unequal economic system that rewards individuals who climb to the top at the expense of others. These individuals (mostly white and male) build organizations that garner them profit and those who work there a minimum wage. They often have two or more homes and an excess of possessions while their employees struggle to make ends meet. This is not democracy. This is self-centeredness disguised as freedom: the “right” to make money—so-called free enterprise.

Some would argue that philanthropists have made major contributions to crucial causes that affect our lives, such as protecting the environment. Here in Southwest Florida, a vast expanse of coastal estuaries and mangroves was saved almost single-handedly by philanthropic contributions. Certainly a wonderful accomplishment, but these areas wouldn’t have needed to be saved in the absence of big business and land development. In an egalitarian social structure, the well-being of all, including plants, animals, and ecosystems, would be paramount in every decision that affects the collective. Isn’t it about time to flip the dominant paradigm?

How about a society based on sharing, reciprocity, and environmental awareness? One where people together build organizations, schools, libraries, and parks and then share them; where everyone has a part in creating the world they live in and everyone has equal access to its benefits. Collective social wealth in which each person has a place to live and enough to eat instead of individual wealth that gives a very few a life of privilege while many are homeless and hungry. This was the possibility that democracy promised, and finally we are evolving to the point of fulfilling it. The extremes of wealth and privilege are becoming glaringly visible, and people are beginning to see alternatives: the circle instead of the pyramid, an equal society in which philanthropy would be obsolete because everyone would have enough.

This transformation is what we are living into now, and it involves a shift in awareness—from self alone to self among others, from me to we. If people were truly compassionate and their hearts and minds were completely open, they couldn’t even imagine having an excess of anything while others had virtually nothing. The process of giving and receiving would be part of daily life. Generosity would be second nature, not an afterthought. And no one would be held back or forced into mediocrity. Each person would live their best life in close connection with others living their best lives, in alignment with the natural world.

Looking around, we see a huge division between the haves and have-nots and ruthless and calculated attempts to keep that division intact. However, these extremes are destined to die out. Underneath the surface of inequality and separation is a movement toward something different: a truly equal and shared life for all beings on this planet. It is a transformation in consciousness and an opening of the heart, which is the source of all love and generosity, engendering a total re-visioning of our world.

“We are a human kind of 7 billion
So many different races and religions
And it all comes down to One.”
—India.arie


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