An upside-down philanthropy
I’ve been working professionally in Christian philanthropy for eighteen years. As time has passed, I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo of how high net worth North American Christians practice giving. I have a growing conviction that the way we practice Christian philanthropy is entangled with a consumer cultural orientation, and that it must detach itself from standard approaches in secular philanthropy. But how? Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture has provided a solid framework for grappling with how one can practice the art of giving well.
We are enmeshed in a consumer culture that deeply infects our approach to life. Miller identifies the problem: “Rather than a conflict between cultures, we face a cultural infrastructure that is capable of absorbing all other cultures as “content” to be commodified, distributed, and consumed. This changes our relationship to religious beliefs and practices profoundly.” This cultural infrastructure also impacts philanthropy. Philanthropists consume by reducing giving to trendy, change-the-world projects that feed our egos, flattening the beauty of generosity to transactional projects with measurable outcomes.
Within late capitalism, philanthropy has become professionalized. Grants become commodities, and the philanthropist grows increasingly disconnected from both the origin of the wealth and the holistic impact it can offer communities in need. Additionally, and this is critical, the philanthropist loses the ability to be transformed by the sacrament of the gift.
In E.M. Conradie’s review of Miller’s book, he identifies that a mentality that commodifies will lead to “shallow engagement”. Just as consumers consume food from nowhere and wear clothes made by no one, we give away wealth we didn’t earn to people we don’t know and remain stubbornly unchanged by the suffering of the world. This profound disconnection is a deep ailment which must be addressed by the transformative power of Christ. For millennials who will inherit the responsibility of Christian philanthropy from their parents, this question must be tackled. Shallow engagement is a waste of an opportunity, a sad casting of pearls before swine.
The time is right for a new approach thanks to the kairos moment in which we live. As we learned through the writings of Bebbington and Erdozain, there are gifts to be gained from the secularization of our landscape. Rather than lament the negative impact of secularity as do the culture warriors, a space is created where a new type of philanthropy can be birthed. Miller states,
“Secularization signals the end… of the highly institutionalized attempt to embody the response that was the church of Christendom…. A hierarchically organized Christendom is replaced with the myriad activities of countless believers articulating their beliefs through the workings of bricolage, rupturing established unities, transgressing conventional limits, bringing together what society assumes must be kept separate, for example, rejecting a safe middle-class existence, crossing class boundaries, working with outcasts for their civil rights.” (Italics mine).
With this new space comes a new generation that is ready to resist a culture of commodification. “[A]ll this materialism and consumption have given rise to a “postmaterialist” culture. Growing up in an era of abundance, many members of this generation now seek deeper spiritual and communal sources of fulfillment.”
To steward religion and ensure that it is not corrupted by capitalism, Miller encourages tactical practices which are carried out on the ground. We can apply the same principles to millennials who engage in philanthropy. It’s an upside-down approach; let me describe some of its features:
- Upside-down philanthropy must be rooted in place
Vincent Miller, in an article in America on “The Geography of Mercy”, cites the example of the Good Samaritan. “The parable presumes a very specific moral geography where knowledge of need and the ability to address it are bound together by space, creating a moral obligation amid serious risk…. The moral and theological question is whether we will “show mercy” or “pass by the other side.”” Traditional philanthropy is often detached from place; millennials want to recover it being situated in a known, lived place.
- Upside-down philanthropy must encounter pain
The problem of late capitalism is that suffering is abstracted. Miller says the news media is a “marketer of intensities, of which the suffering other is a best selling variety.” This often drives much typical philanthropy today. However, embracing a philanthropy that feels pain means leaving one’s comfort, risk-averse life. For millennials, philanthropy can be a type of sacrament, a real place of encounter with God and His grace despite the risks. Sacramentality counters the abstracting that occurs in a capitalist system.
- Upside-down philanthropy must collaborate
One of the unexpected realities of extreme wealth is its isolating nature. The wealthy don’t need to collaborate – they can be lone rangers in their philanthropic approaches to changing the world. Miller cites one of the challenges of late capitalism is the fragmentation of society; people are lonely in their single-family homes. Millennials resist this and lean into collaborative approaches.
- Upside down philanthropy clings to the margins
Wealth means power, and power and control are most usually situated at the centre. But the poor and powerless – those who benefit from philanthropy – live on the fringes. Miller critiques this leaning into comfort: “[W]e face a domesticated Christianity where the forms of apocalyptic longing have been co-opted into the service of inciting consumer desire. In this form of bourgeois religion, the more properly apocalyptic needs of the poor and oppressed are not viewed with distaste and horror for challenging the illusory justice of the status quo. They lose their power to shock us.” We decided to move from Toronto to a small New Brunswick town to situate the ministry of philanthropy within a context where it can be shaped by walking alongside those who are marginalized. Millennials, as well, will identify with this way of coming alongside.
Our commodified realities today don’t mean the end of the kingdom of God transforming all of creation. Faith will be cultivated and begin to thrive in landscapes where we tactically practice new styles of philanthropy for our communities. This place is rooted on the margin, acknowledges and enters into suffering, discovers healing and transformation, and recognizes the value and need for community. Sing with Leonard Cohen this song:
 Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), 179.
 Conradie, E. M. “Knowledge for Sale? The Impact of a Consumerist Hermeneutics on Learning Habits and Teaching Practices in Higher Education.” Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 76, no. 3 (June 27, 2011): 429.
 Miller, Consuming Religion,184.
 Matthew 7:6
 Miller, Consuming Religion, 175.
 Miller, Consuming Religion,89.
 Miller, Consuming Religion,181.
 Miller, Vincent J. “The geography of Mercy: On the internet, we encounter suffering from afar. How do we respond?” America, October 17, 2016, 14+. Academic OneFile (accessed February 8, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A467990686/AONE?u=newb64238&sid=AONE&xid=b409eb97.
 Miller, Consuming Religion, 134.
 Miller, Consuming Religion, 46-54.
 Miller, Consuming Religion, 132.
12 responses to “An upside-down philanthropy”
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Great post once again Mark! I loved how you brought it back to modern philanthropy (as expected) and really love the aspects of “upside-down” philanthropy you highlighted. I can’t wait to pick your brain more on how Jenn & I can be more educated and efficient givers. Loved the music video at the end as well.
I like your choice of words when you say consumerism “deeply infects” our lives. What do you mean when saying the philanthropist “looses the ability to be transformed”? Amen to your “transformative power of Christ” cure for the disconnection in the philanthropy context.
I am suspicious of Miller’s postmaterialist culture nomenclature. We give so many names to fit what our thesis is trying to prove. If Miller says the postmaterialist is seeking “deeper spiritual and communal sources of fulfillment;” I would ask, compared to what?
I will make you a deal. I will adopt your 4-step “Upside-Down Philanthropy approach to my ministry toolbox if you adopt my 6-step Armor of God approach. Deal?
Thanks for the question. I think a philanthropist can lose the ability to be transformed when they distance themselves from the focus of their granting, and allow the “donation” to become just a transaction. Professionalization can create that sort of atmosphere. Giving can be so much more than that if one would learn to engage with the pain and be a more holistic part of the solution.
Mark, what a thoughtful and integrative post! This line struck me: “we give away wealth we didn’t earn to people we don’t know and remain stubbornly unchanged by the suffering of the world.” Lord, help us! Your principles of upside-down philanthropy are very attractive. When thinking about transferring the management of wealth to millennials (ahem), it seems there may often be, as in my case, a significant worldview gap from Christendom boomers to post-everything millennials (or X-ers, which is technically, me). How do families work through these different ways of seeing the world in order to find common ground? Really looking forward to our retreat with you! It strikes me, though, that your upside-down philanthropy is actually right-side up philanthropy. 😉
You said: “There may often be, as in my case, a significant worldview gap from Christendom boomers to post-everything millennials (or X-ers, which is technically, me). How do families work through these different ways of seeing the world in order to find common ground?”
Your question is why I am writing my dissertation. Stay tuned!! I’ll give you a copy when I’m finished!! 🙂 And we will begin to address these issues during our retreat in Seattle which I am so looking forward to.
Great opening photo! Visual ethnography at it’s finest.
I was doing research yesterday, and heard a quote from Dave Ramsey that said’ “More income unfortunately does not transform into more giving.” Ouch!
I unfortunately have seen this play out often, as you have to? On the other hand, I wish he would have added the word “usually” because I have seen some cases of more income equalling more generosity…
Who can discern the heart? I think the woman with two pennies is the best example we find in the NT of a generous, self-sacrificial giver.
I almost wrote on the stuff from no where. I was really touched by how we as a culture don’t seem to care where our things come from. When we go on vacation we keep things that represent a visit or an experience from Cost Rica. But if we are in Walmart and buy a Costa Rican Shirt, we don’t care. This “shallow engagement” has become an excuse not to care about our world. I whole heartedly agree with your statement, “This profound disconnection is a deep ailment which must be addressed by the transformative power of Christ.”
Love your writing style. I felt I was in a class learning about philanthropy. Great use of the topic to teach us (and work through) ideas that are close to your heart. Also, I had never heard that song…touching…moving.
Leonard Cohen, our famous, quixotic Montrealer. You may have heard this one from him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQEGSar9V_k
Great post on those who can help and those who are on the fringes of society. I know how passionate you are about the ministry God has led you into. How do you find millennials reacting to a society of excess and the church which, in all truth, has benefited from the excess?
Here’s some relatively current research on what is happening with young adults in Canada.