Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Philanthropy as money laundering

Written by: on November 2, 2017

My review of the brief pamphlet, Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools[1], by Richard Paul and Linda Elder, provided me with a sharp set of tools for advancing with research on generational transitions in Christian family philanthropy.  How to analyze logic, how to reason, how to approach research, a template for problem-solving, and the problems of egocentric and sociocentric thinking all are possible grids for reviewing one’s research to ensure I am moving toward a more robust, mature expression of ideation for the topic at hand.

The genius of this course is that while we learn how to read and research, critique and evaluate (thanks to Adler, Bayard, Rowntree, et al.), we are at the same time compiling an active bibliography of sources for our research topic.  This week I annotated my first six sources a few steps away at our (only) local coffee shop, Something’s Brewing.  As I drank my Just Us! fair trade latte, I was arrested by concepts in a book by Daniel M. Bell called The Economy of Desire.

Bell has some critical and deeply disturbing words for philanthropists that will cause me to examine them both here and in greater depth as I research.  I was both appalled and attracted as I read these brazen passages; most people are too nice to say bad things about philanthropists, but I thought anyone who tries to speak the truth deserves a hearing.  Within our capitalistic system and its resulting sociocentric thinking, we have “[t]he uncritical tendency to internalize group norms and beliefs, take on group identities, and act as we are expected to act – without the least sense that what we are doing might reasonably be questioned.”[2]  Bell was giving me a gift; he was offering more than groupthink.  I realized I could apply the skills from Paul and Elder’s critical thinking concepts and tools to this provocative chapter.

Here is a taste of Bell’s view of philanthropy: “[It] sustains the system insofar as it is a means of ‘laundering’ the profits of the current order.”[3]  And then, “Philanthropy, like stewardship, is giving that has become disconnected from any question of justice in earnings.  Indeed, philanthropy becomes a means of shoring up the image of capitalism’s beneficiaries.”[4]  He continues, “Philanthropic giving is an expression of private ownership.  It is giving that is first and foremost an act of self-expression.  It is born in the need of the giver, and, even if it is quite public, philanthropy is still the expression of private interest or desire. All of which to say that philanthropy severs giving from mutuality. While it may meet some needs – of the giver first and foremost but, hopefully, of the recipients as well – it does not build community.  It does not create, extend, or renew human relations beyond the capitalist form.”[5]

These strike me as true statements, though they are hard to read.  I have never considered philanthropy as money laundering before, and can see how the author could make these claims.  I am particularly moved by his perspective that philanthropy does not build community but merely reinforces the us/them divide.

Bell contrasts this cynical view of philanthropy with works of mercy, which he suggests are the evidence of the new kingdom of God emerging in our midst.  These are a part of the divine economy, a restructuring of our households, societies, and systems, that is led by the Spirit of God through the Church at work in the world. Works of mercy bring us together as a living community, as a body of interdependent family members, with Christ as the head. We are one in Christ.  We all gather around one table and eat.  We all give what is in our hands and share.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira had a dramatic and unexpected ending for a couple who couldn’t prioritize living in community[6].

Our calling as followers of Christ introduces a new order into our world through works of mercy.  These disrupt the systems of the world, including philanthropy, which as a privatized act often merely reinforces existing systems.  I would venture to say we are bordering on Mike’s thesis topic as we are now discussing confronting the evils of capitalism.

While I applaud Daniel Bell’s courage in critiquing capitalism and standing up against the roar of the status quo, he does so, it seems as a theoretician.  I am just beginning to understand his ideas, but they strike me as sadly impotent in our real world where we exist within a capitalist framework.  He cites intentional Christian communities like the Catholic Worker Movement, the New Monasticism, and Focolare[7] as examples of groups that embody the new divine economy that are rooted in simplicity and solidarity.  We create alternative markets for fair trade products, sign petitions for the Jubliee campaign to offer debt-laden nations freedom, and advocate for honest pay for honest work. Yet in the face of so immense a ravenous system, these small, insignificant beginnings seem fragile and doomed to failure, as a mouse shivering before a lion.

In particular, the question is personal.  I am a follower of Christ who at the same time leads a philanthropic organization.  I work with Christian families to assist them in reorganizing their portfolios for this new divine economy.  How can I utilize resources and exert leadership to subvert our current system and welcome the new kingdom where people matter more than things, and we don’t commodify ourselves and our services?  How can a new story be told through the humble scraps of bread and small fish in our hands?

Christian philanthropy must be distinct from traditional philanthropy.  Now, we are trapped within a system where the “now and not yet” is a constant reality.  We see now through a glass darkly[8].  I live and structure my life so imperfectly, so self-centredly. Though it has flaws, philanthropy must be redeemed and reordered to create and nurture community, bringing to earth the fulness of the kingdom of God.  One day we will see Jesus face to face[9].



[1] Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2003.

[2] Paul and Elder, 22.

[3] Bell, Daniel M. The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World.  (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic, 2012), 199-200.

[4] Bell, 200.

[5] Bell, 202-203.

[6] Acts 5:1-11.

[7] Bell, 211.

[8] I Corinthians 13:12a.

[9] I Corinthians 13:12b.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

9 responses to “Philanthropy as money laundering”

  1. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Mark, once again your insights hit the core of where I live! These hard truths resonate with me, and in many ways I agree. And yet…I don’t think that mercy and philantrhopy are mutually exclusive endeavours. (And I don’t think yo uare saying that they are, either, but rather looking for ways for those to be reconciled.)

    My own study of theology and critical thinking about missions has put me into a bit of a personal crisis, as I am starting to believe that there should be no such thing as “professional” Christians. In other words, while I am certain of my call to live and minister in France, I am not sure that I think I should live entirely off of the generosity of others as a missionary. There is too much to say about this than can be said here, but I think this is an area where your project and my project may have some convergence. As I look at the changing tide of missions in the 21st centruy, and what we must be doing differently, I am starting to believe that how we finance mission work must also change (and not just because the “money is drying up” but because it is the right thing to do).

    My position is still evolving on this, but I’m currently leaning towards the bi-vocational model that we teach our French church planters to embrace. This is different from Buisiness as Mission (which imho) doesn’t work. In a bi-vocational model we are not creating a business for the purpose of mission (which has always felt a little disingenuous to me); but rather, engaging fully in the culture in which we live as a part of being the church and bringing to Kingdom of God to a neighborhood. It doesn’t go all the way to the point where missionaries and pastors do not need any financial support from donors, but it does lessen their total dependence on that support. This allows the pastor/missionary to remin connected in and relevant to the “real world” in which they live and minister, while also requiring the missionary to cultivate a source of support and accountability to the broader boady of Christ through needing a partial support base. I think that BAM advocates have hijacked the “tentmaking” concept–and that actually, what Paul did was closer to this idea of bivocationality.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

    • Salut Jennifer,

      I wholeheartedly support your idea for bivocationality, especially as a new (old) model for missionary, and especially if you are urging your French compatriots to do the same. Live and work as a graphic designer, a teacher, an architect, or a bed-and-breakfast owner. And do church start-ups too. It was the original model St Paul used.

      I loved seeing the images of your church gathering in your coworking space in Lyon on the recent video you shared on Facebook. I think one of the gifts the French church has for the world is to model small and intimate communities of transformation. Not mega-churches. In these smaller cohorts there is more a need for bivocationality, but this also roots everyone deeper into the soil of French life, culture, and community.

  2. Chris Pritchett says:

    This is a striking post, Mark. Thank you for sharing part of your research. I was impressed by your ability to differentiate from what could have been perceived by you as an attack on your vocation, in order to claim the authors kernels of truth for the purpose of refining your research. In your post, I was reminded of this obscure statement from Jesus and wonder how you have understood that verse in light of capitalism and philanthropy. The context of the verse is the parable of the dishonest manager, and Jesus’ statement follows: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”(NRSV: Luke 16: 9). How do you understand this verse as a Christian philanthropist in a capitalist society? It seems to me that your comments on mercy apply here, as Jesus rejects the idea that giving does not “renew human relations beyond the capitalist form.” I don’t know…what do you think?

    • Chris,

      I will definitely have to mull over that verse, and keep mulling!!

      My attempt at understanding that odd exhortation would be to suggest that Jesus exaggerates an example to reinforce an idea. I think the core of what he’s getting at is in the following verse: “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (v13, NLT). Jesus seems to highlight the shrewdness of the manager because he is serving his only master – Money. The manager definitely isn’t serving the Owner. So the story serves to prove the point that you either serve God or you serve Money.

      Thanks for giving me that Scripture to think through. I’ll keep thinking.

  3. Greg says:

    You wrote, “Works of mercy bring us together as a living community, as a body of interdependent family members, with Christ as the head. We are one in Christ.” What a beautiful image. Do you find that those within the church are afraid to talk about money; as if it is evil and needs to be avoided in conversations? How do we bring out the redeeming parts of philanthropy into the light of the church? I felt like sometimes people have the thought that money was something evil and we tolerated in this world, yet deep down it was sinful and our desire for it was as well. I love how you contract that notion speaking to the recreated that only can be God directed and God redeemed section within your blog. That philanthropy can and should be an aspect that helps brings the fulfillment of the kingdom of God to earth. That was a new thought that I will need to chew on for a bit. I like that God has the power to utilize and work within all aspects of our society for His glory, I guess I hadn’t taken the time to see that within this aspect of the world

    • Greg,

      I guess I’ve come to believe that all things must be redeemed by Christ’s light and beauty and will be a part of the new kingdom. So philanthropy is there, but a redeemed philanthropy that creates and nurtures community and isn’t focused on the giver. But in the new Jerusalem we also find a new architecture, more perfect baseball, better sailing ships, and sustainable agriculture. As CS Lewis says in The Last Battle, “Further up, and further in!” The kingdom keeps expanding!

  4. I have to say, your title definitely grabbed my attention. And after reading your post, I completely agree with the statements made in Bell’s book about how many philanthropists today can be out for selfish gain and recognition and not out to build community or meaningful relationships. That is one of the reasons why we took our kids to Guatemala to see first hand where and why we were investing in the drilling of clean water wells. Meeting the people in the village and seeing the look on my kids’ faces was worth it all. I love the work you are doing with Christian philanthropy and so excited you are gaining this new knowledge to share with those you come in contact with. Great post once again my friend. Also hope your remodel project is going well 🙂

  5. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    You are like no other Philanthropist I have ever met. It is amazing that you are willing to ask tough questions about yourself to improve yourself. And it is my opinion that you are not doing this just for yourself, but you TRULY want to do this according to God’s plan.

    Not trying to blow sunshine up your skirt, but thanks for your honesty and transparency. Well done my Brother!

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Mark, great job drawing your future dissertation into the reading. I liked how you drew on the Ananias and Sapphira story though I am not sure I agree with the analysis of the their sin by Bell, I do believe they failed to use critical thinking in their decision making process. They were asked by Peter, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” Though they thought about their own financial profit in the scenario, and though I believe they considered the benefit of giving to their community, I think they failed to consider God in the equation. This short coming would cost them their lives; thus a danger of a failure to do critical thinking.

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