Using my newly-founded freedom upon completing 1L, I picked up “The Blue Sweater,” a thought-provoking and insightful book by Jacqueline Novogratz (I know, this is years too late!). Novogratz presents a number of key arguments for better philanthropy, and the need to build companies that serve the poor, rather than just provide charity. While my work largely focuses on the non-profit side of things, and I still sustain a belief that strengthening civil society, local leadership and the non-profit sector (along with the government) can make an impact, I do think that investing in social enterprises and businesses that make products and services much more affordable to the poor are very necessary.
There are points in which I’m not entirely sure I agree with Novogratz. While clean water and health care can be provided by private companies at a low, affordable cost for the poor, I still believe we should continue pushing governments to provide such services for free, as a matter of right. At the same time, it’s undeniable that providing such services privately has reached many more in the short-run.
Ultimately, she makes a number of excellent points. Here are some of her insights that particularly struck me:
Traditional charity speaks of donors and grantees, but this passive language creates a power dynamic that might as well call the two groups the givers and the takers. I had seen so many dysfunctional conversations where a grantee would give a would-be or existing donor misleading and evasive answers because they feared losing funding if they told the truth about the difficulties of their work. And I’d seen those same grantees agree to do things the donors thought they should, even if it made no sense for the mission of the organization. It is hard to say no to someone who has the power to finance your dreams — or more to the point, your payroll.
Novogratz also points out something I think is especially frustrating — that donors want low overheads, without looking at what those non-profits’ results ultimately are. Low overheads mean nothing if outcomes are poor or nonexistent. The focus should be on the result, no matter if it takes a higher “overhead” to get there:
I also took issue with the practice of donors typically funding only programs instead of institutions. “I want to be certain that all of the money goes directly to the people who need it most,” prospective donors would tell me. That’s a fine strategy for providing alms or direct charity. At the same time, no one would invest in a company and not expect it to pay for hiring great people, paying the rent, and keeping the lights on.
Novogratz also worked in the U.S. with the Rockefeller Foundation on domestic philanthropy efforts, which I found very interesting. I’ve always felt that there is a profound, and unnecessary, disconnect between domestic and international social justice efforts. The focus within the development “sector” rarely shifts to redressing injustices in the U.S., in our own backyard. More and more, through law school, I’ve cemented a belief that we are all interconnected – and that injustice at home is inextricably connected to injustice abroad. Novogratz writes that her mentor encouraged her to work with the Rockefeller Foundation. He said:
“..But to be truly effective, especially internationally, you must root yourself more strongly in your home’s own soil. It is time for you to know this country, as well. Only by knowing ourselves can we truly understand others– and knowing from where you come is an important part of knowing who you are.”
“Surely there are enough people interested in this country,” [she] told him….. He shook his head. [...] “What happens overseas is profoundly influenced by what happens here, especially now. And the reverse is true, as well.”
Finally, she mentions complexity — an important lesson to impart. Novogratz writes:
Recently I heard a fair-trade promoter say in a speech, “You can change the world by drinking a cup of coffee.” Those simple slogans are great for marketing, but should alert people to something false in easy promises. Poverty is too complex to be answered with a one-size-fits-all approach…