Philanthropy and the social good: what exactly are we designing and distributing?

Chunghwa Telecom Wi-Fi available tag

“Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner?” Peter Buffett asked rhetorically in a New York Times op-ed piece last year.

Yes, Peter is one of those Buffetts. He is the youngest son of Warren Buffett. Among his many roles and accomplishments, Peter is the co-chair of the NoVo Foundation.

The younger Buffett then answered his own question. “No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex.”

His op-ed piece took on what Peter calls the “charitable industrial complex”–the vast conglomeration of non-profits and NGOs taking in billions of dollars annually in support of efforts to somehow make the world a better place, while often not addressing the systemic problems of the economic system that both feeds charities and creates the need for charities.

In a commentary in Forbes, Howard Husock chided Buffett for dismissing all the good that philanthropy does around the world. One example Husock cited was the benefit to poor Kenyans of cellphones that support mobile banking and commerce. (I wrote previous about this use of cell phones for direct giving.)

In looking at it from a marketing viewpoint, I think Buffett and Husock are in violent agreement: They both agree that it matters how and what we design and distribute to meet the needs of people.

In philanthropy, cellphones and Wi-Fi and other products can’t be ends in themselves. Products need to be means to the ends that actually help people. In the examples cited here, those ends are economic sufficiency and gender equity.

How do we design, package, and distribute economic sufficiency, gender equity, or any of the other real solutions needed by many on the planet? I think that is Buffett’s point. That’s the problem we need to solve. Philanthropy, with its inherent difference from the public and private sectors, is in the best position to carry this level of needs analysis, product design, and distribution.

As Buffett writes, “Foundation dollars should be the best ‘risk capital’ out there. There are people working hard at showing examples of other ways to live in a functioning society that truly creates greater prosperity for all (and I don’t mean more people getting to have more stuff)…Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market.”

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