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Philanthropy: Killing itself with Kindness and Happiness?

Flickr, The way I see it

One of the stated reasons for this news site, Humanosphere, is to report on (and thereby, hopefully, improve) the public narrative about aid and development.

Some organizations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believe that the problem with the public dialogue is it’s too negative. As I recently wrote in a post on the Gates Foundation’s strategic media partnerships, the world’s biggest philanthropy is working on a number of fronts to advance its goal of seeing more positive coverage of progress being made in the fight against poverty.

That’s a noble enough goal and hard to argue against when stated as such.

But as the always excellent Caroline Preston reports in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, many within the humanitarian community are concerned that the problem is actually the tendency to only want to talk about positive news — even internally, organizationally — and to avoid honest, critical debate. Preston interviews a number of leaders in the non-profit community who speak candidly about the culture of nice and why it hurts the community:

Susan Davis
Susan Davis
Chronicle of Philanthropy

Susan Davis, president of BRAC USA, which supports the Bangladeshi international-development group of the same name, agrees that charities need to stop selling only good news.

Fearful that donors will react in a knee-jerk manner if they hear of a program’s failure or a developing-country government that siphons off aid money, nonprofits tend to oversimplify stories of their work, reinforcing donors’ unrealistic expectations, she says.

Nonprofits must be their own harshest critics, says Ms. Davis. They might consider approaching fundraising as a long-term educational endeavor, trying to inform donors and helping them understand the work.

“What we want when we donate money is to feel good,” she says. “It’s much harder to engage the public in something more complicated, but the truth is, as our world has become more interconnected, people are becoming more sophisticated, and what we’re trying to do is invite people on a learning journey.”

Read the entire article Is Philanthropy Killing Itself with Kindness?, which the Chronicle has kindly released from behind its paywall. It goes on to examine not just the deadly threat of niceness but some of the other trends – such as thinking the humanitarian sector should be viewed as just a poorly functioning industry in need of more of a business mindset.

For a related article, from an aid worker’s perspective, see this interesting post Humanitarianism is a Syndrome from J. (the anonymous aid worker formerly known as Tales from the Hood) at the the aid worker blog AidSpeak:

Talking, communicating about aid in ways that are both truthful and also engaging. If that’s true, then we’d better get a better grip on how we talk about it than we currently have. More to the point, if our core purpose is increasingly around talking about what we do and how and why to those who don’t know, whether they’re our donors, those who ‘like’ agency Facebook pages, or the self-proclaimed critics, then more of that talking will need to be done by professional practitioners, with less emphasis on branded filtration. In short, it’s time for more full, honest dialogue about aid effectiveness in the public space.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.