I grew up a poor black girl in a Washington, D.C., ghetto. It was the tumultuous time of the civil rights movement. Disheartened by the injustices of the day, I found hope in the message of a bumper sticker. It read: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” It dawned on me that I didn’t have to be a victim of my circumstances. I could be a solution and change things. Poor meant only that I had less wealth, not less worth. That simple message helped me realize I have value!
I’ve spent much of my life since serving organizations fighting poverty across America and struggling to be valued as a black woman able to contribute. I wish I could say that I see philanthropy bringing an end to poverty. But, despite trillions of dollars donated since the ’60s, poverty remains in full force.
Today, 50 million Americans live below the official poverty-income level of $25,100 a year, or less, for a family of four. That’s 14 million more poor people today than in 1964, when America’s War on Poverty launched.
Why isn’t philanthropy helping to end poverty? According to Confronting Poverty, America’s failure to institutionalize equality hinders policies and programs that would prevent and reduce poverty. Given this, we could simply blame the system. But we also play a part.
Philanthropy is defined as “the love of humanity.” Such love would ensure equality. It would move us to vote for politicians who stand for equality, work for and buy from businesses that practice equality, insist on equality in social justice, and make sure our charitable efforts include advocating and advancing equality. Yet we do not.
The culture of philanthropy, in my opinion, runs counter to the definition of philanthropy. Whether intentional or unintentional, rather than love humanity, we seem to love self-satisfaction.
Here’s how I see it:
- We value the poor, not by their worth, but by their lack. Rather than consider poor people potentially equal contributors to society, we define them by their visible challenges, then strive to fix them. Left unaddressed are the invisible challenges that often undo any progress—low self-esteem, trauma, inferiority conditioning, and spiritual poverty. Consequently, each year, poor people are joined by more poor people. Is our self-worth so gratified by their need of us that it prevents our wanting to value them enough to uplift them?
- We like to believe education and employment are the solution to poverty. Not so, or there would not be educated, working, and formerly employed people among the poor! As made clear in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, human well-being requires the social, emotional, and physiological supports that systemic inequality destroys. We need intervention services that are holistic, plus prevention services that include advocacy to end social injustices. Or do we really think poverty can end without assuring the poor equal rights, respect and protection?
- We prefer “passion satisfaction.” Passion drives charity—what we want to give the poor. Love facilitates change—what the poor need for a better life. Passion satisfaction comes easy. We simply relieve a need or two. But investing in programs run by people who love hard and serve long to uplift the lives of others takes time and patient capital. Is it really charity for the poor, if we are the ones who benefit most?
- We ignore the obvious experts. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million failed attempt to improve New Jersey schools should have made clear that money is a resource, not a change agent. Yet we continue to seek expensive, inexperienced consultants vs. the insight of change leaders—i.e., managers of the relatively few programs reducing America’s poverty, and persons who, themselves, have overcome poverty. How good are our goodwill intentions, if we prefer getting poverty solutions from the inexperienced?
- We strive to do more, not better. Capacity-building typically focuses on expanding relief, even though relief does not reduce poverty. Capacity-building focused, instead, on advancing self-sufficiency and social equality would expand holistic intervention and prevention services. While respected organizations like the Foundation Center have long pushed for collaboration to holistically and cost-effectively address needs, pushing back are the challenges of working together and the comforts of tradition, habit, and ego. How good will we feel, if our philanthropy comforts us into an economic recession that plummets us into poverty?
Let’s face it. Of greatest value in our capitalistic society is money. For the poor to be deemed worthy of life-changing support, we’d have to see them, not as a social cost, but as a promising social investment.
Seeking to rationalize the value of helping people out of poverty, I discovered that the word “economy” tracks back to the Greek word, oikonomia, meaning “household management.” Indeed, it takes well-managed households to create people able to help America thrive. Philanthropy that facilitates producing such people and a social system that welcomes and leverages their contributions would grant America the best economic stimulus money could buy.
Following seven years’ testing and development with nonprofits, nationwide, my company, Saint Wall Street, has brought to market Philanthropic Return on Investment™ (PROI) software and services—metrics, measures, and methods to plan and produce the greater cost-benefits and higher return on investment that follow people in poverty moving to self-sufficiency. PROI is based on the Gates Foundation Results Hierarchy in response to measurable impacts listed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. PROI software instantly estimates impact value based on research-backed cost data by state. And PROI training features proven poverty-fighting strategies, taught by practitioners who’ve been there, done that. Clients using the PROI methodology have raised more money, faster, and report funders and legislators saying, “This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.”
The eternal optimist in me wants to believe PROI is a game-changer, that it will help the culture of philanthropy align with the definition of philanthropy, so that we all become part of the solution vs. part of the problem.
Bernice Sanders Smoot is founder and president of Saint Wall Street, LLC. A former corporate marketer and champion of social change, she has served professionally and as a volunteer in the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years. Professionally, clients have included federal, state, and private grantmakers, nonprofit universities and intermediaries, and human-services providers, nationwide. As a volunteer, she has served on nonprofit boards, taught inside jails, and currently mentors at-risk African-American girls at the Academy Prep Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she now resides.