Bogged down in ‘civil society’

Paul Brest, who heads the Hewlett Foundation and has just published a book about smart philanthropy, discusses the challenge to philanthrocapitalism from civil society in an article in the Huffington Post.

Some of the loudest critics of philanthrocapitalism, such as Michael Edwards, come from the nonprofit sector and argue that there is a conflict or contradiction between philanthrocapitalism and civil society. Paul summarises Michael’s argument: “Since civil society’s focus on rights, equality, and collective action and opposes the individualism and competition of business, he suggests that business and civil society organizations “working together but independently may be a better way forward than dissolving our differences in some soggy middle ground.””

Our view is that it is the critics of philanthrocapitalism who are trapped in a swamp. The great strength of business and civil society is that they are both diverse spheres where different ideas compete and collaborate all the time. Critics such as Edwards like to caricature philanthrocapitalism as philanthropy with a narrow focus on performance metrics, whereas we show in the book that it is a diverse movement with many different approaches. Moreover, rather than challenging or weakening civil society, we think that philanthrocapitalism is a vibrant new force that can help civil society to grow and become more effective and help the private sector to think about the social and environmental consequences of making money. This is a new paradigm for civil society and the market and one that we think has enormous potential for good.  It is disappointing, therefore, that some in the nonprofit sector see philanthrocapitalism merely as a threat.

Paul is going to be discussing these issues in future articles but concludes that the ‘civil society’ critique of philanthrocapitalism is “premised on a notion of “civil society’ that makes it seem much more homogeneous than I think it actually is.”   We agree.  Yes, philanthrocapitalists need to be held to account. But claiming that civil society speaks with one voice about philanthrocapitalism does us all a disservice.