Blair Miller

How We May Change the Charitable Industrial Complex

I, like many others, read Peter Buffet’s article on charity in the New York Times last month. I loved the piece but it left me wanting for more. If the “Charitable-Industrial Complex” is the old story, then what is the new one and, how do we build it? I wanted to offer a few ideas.

First, as long as philanthropy is about exchange of goods (water, wells, clothing, hospitals), things will never change. I believe development should be about finding new ways to truly see one another. When I worked at Acumen developing the leadership programs we put the majority of our effort into finding the right mix of people for the cohorts. I remember our first class of East Africa Fellows. We had two fellows who were born, raised, and still living in Mathare and Kibera (two slums in Kenya), one woman who was the granddaughter of the former president of Kenya, and one man who has just graduated from Harvard Business School. While the fellows had access to world-class leadership and business curriculum, it was the interaction with people from completely different backgrounds on an equal level playing field that changed the way they looked at the world. This cannot happen when a philanthropist visits a slum for a day, that system does not lend itself to truly seeing one another. What might a new model look like?

Second, the new narrative exists it just needs to be written. (This part is Africa-centric but I figured this narrative needs the most work). Let me give you a taste. For the last three years a “Ted” for Africa has emerged called the African Leadership Network, bringing together the under 40 of the African continent to share ideas, foster economic development from entertainment to private equity, and redefine charity.

In addition, African diaspora and philanthropists are emerging as the leading voices for a new type of inclusive African growth. A few of my favorites include: Ozwald Boeteng and Chris Cleverly, of Made in Africa Foundation) from Ghana; Uzo Iweala, editor of Ventures Magazine from Nigeria; Sara Menker of Gro Ventures from Ethiopia; Andrew Kuper, of Leap Frog Investments from South Africa; Gustav Praekelt, Praekelt Foundation from South Africa; Dee Poku, Women Inspiration Enterprise from Ghana; and Robbie Brozin, of Nandos from South Africa. Trust me the list could go on. The ultimate question for me is: WHY are we still telling the old story?

If we want inclusive growth we must create mechanisms that allow the low income consumers to give real input. The charity model is broken. In our current model the charities’ real customer is the donor, not the low income person they are ultimately trying to serve. This creates misaligned incentives on all sides and forces charities to tell the savior story. I would love to see philanthropists move beyond this model to innovate around ways that allow for direct reporting from low income person to philanthropist and also allow NGO’s to truly talk about their failures. For example, it would amazing to have aggregated information via text message on the value of a clinic in a slum sent directly to a philanthropists, rather than being filtered through an NGO.

Can we really be inclusive elitists? Often I find myself at an exclusive event for social entrepreneurs or development workers and wonder: Who are these events really for? We often justify these events because we want to make the philanthropists feel comfortable and not push them too far out of their comfort zone. I would love to see more philanthropists speak up about this in an authentic way. Are we really doing this for you? Could we develop another model to showcase our work that is more inclusive and authentic?

Finally, I believe we live in a world of possibilities governed by archaic systems. We have to move away from bandaid solutions to real system change. I have seen a lot of “new” models emerge that are old ones masked with great marketing or a new way to utilize social media. These models are not changing the charitable industrial complex; they are keeping it alive. I am not saying it is easy to create real systems change, but if we want to see new models we have to push ourselves. We must do the hard work to understand the leverage points because innovation for the sake of innovation or for personal gain will never yield the real transformation we need to build more inclusive societies and economic systems.

Blair Miller works for the Millennium Development Goals Health Alliance, which is a coalition of private sector leaders focused on accelerating the progress toward the health focused MDG’s.

Note: this post originally appeared on Blair Miller’s blog and has been re-posted with permission.