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

The two faces of philanthropy

Written by: on February 22, 2018

“Wanna buy a watch?”  The words were repeated, “Wanna buy a watch?”  Mumbled under their breath in a stage whisper, Chinese vendors surreptitiously approached us in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square. We stopped to view their wares. One of the many watches for sale contained the image of Mao Tse-Tung, arm waving frantically, uselessly. We laughed at the irony. Here, the image of the father of Chinese communism, whose oppressive face glared down at us from the end of the square, was also looking up at us as a marketing gimmick to sell a cheap Chinese timepiece. Upon further reflection, what appeared as an irony would be likened to a betrayal.

The same microbetrayals are repeated time and time again in The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter of the University of Toronto and l’Université de Montréal respectively. Leftist attempts at counterculture resistance end up being coopted by capitalism, become commodified, and end by reinforcing and sustaining the very thing they rail against. The authors pull back the curtain on the surprising myth of the counterculture. “Thanks to [this] myth…, many of the people who are most opposed to consumerism nevertheless actively participate in the sort of behavior that drives it.”[1]

Heath and Potter get personal when they direct their attention to the inconsistencies of Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and fellow Torontonian. Klein is one of Canada’s more prominent new generation of socialist voices. She is married to Avi Lewis, a filmmaker, who is himself son of Stephen Lewis, former leader of the federal left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) and former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations. With this esteemed biography, Klein is a well-known fixture of the political and cultural elite in Canada – she’s well-connected and influential, and, say the authors, able to find creative ways around zoning to live in a hip textile factory. Her loft, at King and Spadina, is, frankly, where everyone wants to live. Located between the financial and entertainment districts, only someone with connections could live an alternative lifestyle there until the zoning was loosened by the City of Toronto to permit redevelopment.

Klein’s supporters and radical leftists howled their disapproval of The Rebel Sell, critical not only of the authors’ apparent abandonment of key leftist ideology but of outing one of their heroes. Derrick O’Keefe states in Seven Oaks, “[Heath and Potter] are, it seems, off to the side of the battle, enjoying an intellectualized mockery of the Left as much as an analysis and criticism of those in power…. I don’t think that’s where The Rebel Sell is coming from, and so I’m not buying.”[2]

In constrast, others such as Elisabeth Wasserman in The Atlantic, affirm the trajectory of the authors’ logic. She states, “Heath and Potter challenge the followers of Moore, Klein, et al. to abandon their militant fantasies and “make peace with the masses”—turning their energies to the often tedious but far more effective process of political reform in an imperfect world.”[3] It’s easier to rush the barricades than it is to lobby for incremental policy change, but Heath and Potter’s proposed solution to the abuses of capitalism involve a commitment to slow legal changes done patiently.

It’s easy to highlight the duplicity of easy targets like Klein; however, it is important to examine ourselves closely for the log in our eye before picking out the splinter in another’s. This book offers an opportunity for Christian philanthropists to consider how their generosity needs to be consistent with deep theological convictions about the world, and how we operate in it as people of faith. We must align ourselves with integrity and truth.

There is a need for soul-searching. At times we give to merely pacify our conscience of some grievous societal ill that perhaps our profit-making had a hand in creating. At other times, we let our giving become a political, public statement that is entirely without internal consistency. Unfortunately, I fear this is behind much of what we see in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and big philanthropy. I am aware of an example from many years ago where Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company, strove to assist communities in Peru affected by their operations by working in partnership with World Vision Canada. What was behind their giving? Perhaps only God knows the motivation.

L.M. Moncrieff, in Law and Critique, exposes this inconsistency in philanthropy by citing Slavoj Zizek[4] “[who] describes … the ‘two faces of Bill Gates’: the face that publicises a fight against subjective violence (racism, crime, terror) hides another face, which is, in fact, the agent of systemic violence. The businessman…‘who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces’.[5] While I would not be so harshly dogmatic about the supposed sins of Bill Gates as Zizek, the point is that often we take with one hand and give with another.

Could this lack of congruency happen also for Christian philanthropy?  I am reminded of my friend, Emily Neilsen Jones, co-founder of the Boston-based Imago Dei Fund[6], a faith-inspired foundation with international reach. We first met in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2010 on a trip where several foundation executives spent two weeks exploring the issue of human trafficking and meeting representatives from many organizations.

It was Emily’s discernment which began to highlight an inconsistency as our visit together progressed. While many organizations and their donor bases claimed they existed to create positive pathways for women, very few had opened the pathways sufficiently to allow women into leadership of these same organizations. Deeper probing revealed barriers for women in governance or management positions, often due to theological perspectives. Yet these weren’t churches but Christian NGOs. Donors jumped on the bandwagon to liberate women, but in many cases afterwards, the women still weren’t free to exercise their God-given leadership. Emily articulated clearly the inconsistencies of believing that women had value enough to be freed from commodification yet not enough to be trusted in leadership. It was really an opportunity for donors to come alongside and push for changes in the system. Until Emily, this did not happen.

None of us are perfect in philanthropy. I believe, though, that with hearts softened by prayer and a willingness to change if and when God leads, we will be protected from the worst of hypocrisies and our giving will become better integrated.


[1] Heath, Joseph, and Andrew Potter. Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2005, 132.

[2] O’Keefe, Derrick. “Not Buying The Rebel Sell: A Critique of a Critique of the Left’s Political Practice.” Seven Oaks, June 24, 2005. https://web.archive.org/web/20050624234029/http://sevenoaksmag.com/commentary/67_comm2.html. Accessed on February 22, 2018.

[3] Wasserman, Elizabeth. “Rebels Without a Cause.” The Atlantic, April 2005. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/04/rebels-without-a-cause/303865/. Accessed on February 22, 2018.

[4] Zizek, Slavoj. 2006. “Nobody has to be vile.” London Review of Books, 28(7), 10.

[5] Moncrieff, L. M. (2011). The molotov milkshake: Corporate social responsibility and the market. Law and Critique, 22(3), 273-293. http://dx.doi.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10978-011-9092-3. Accessed on February 22, 2018.

[6] Imago Dei Fund Website, http://imagodeifund.org/, Accessed on February 22, 2018.

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 “The two faces of philanthropy”

  1. M Webb says:

    In my many travels around the world to hard to reach places, I too have seen the street vendors at work with their brand name knock-offs. My Dad while on military assignment in Turkey bought what he thought was an alexandrite ring for my mom, only to discover 50 years later is was a fake. There are a lot of fakes out there I think. I’m glad you brought in some Biblical examples of the splinter and log in one’s eye. The eye of the needle parable, for your ministry, is really a key theme to keep your philanthropy clients focused on the maters that really matter.
    I have seen Satan divide and destroy well intended philanthropy initiatives in mission aviation. For example, I witnessed the attempt to introduce Boeing 737’s into the ministry marketplace in an African country. The intent, raise money for God so we can afford to do more good works for God in the sub-Saharan region that is plagued with hunger, disease, and poverty. It looked good, promised big returns, and after one year would fund ministry for the next 10 years. The only problem, it was not God’s plan, nor his way to accomplish his goals for the mission, ministry, or the region in need. Instead, the plan failed, the mission divided and bankrupt, the board of directors fired, and the B-737 sat abandoned at the end of the runway, now a useless relic too expensive even to fix and fly away to another location.
    Stand firm my friend, I’m glad to see you are open to the idea of spiritual warfare,
    M. Webb

    • Mike,

      We have considered many projects over the years that promised a big bang for your buck. As time and experience have accumulated, I generally tend to disbelieve these marketing schticks even when presented by otherwise wonderful Christian organizations. In my experience, choosing to invest in slow and incremental change is to be preferred.

      Thanks for your comment. Keep praying for protection and grace.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    Any idea how many of the funded organizations through your family foundation have fizzled out? It would be fascinating to me, to know how many were unsuccessful.

    I would anticipate there is a trade wide percentage that fail, even for folks that the Gates Foundation have supported.

    The hardest thing for me as a fund raiser, was to see long term sustainability in projects. Like providing a water well for a community in Haiti (which we did), but returning a year later to find they had sold the hardware, piece by piece, for mere pennies…

    • Hi Jay,

      My guess would be that 15% are miserable failures…and 10% are great successes, and the remainder are average. In my mind this doesn’t necessarily mean that the 15% was a waste of money. In fact, my clients who are mainly entrepreneurs have a much higher threshold for failure than most charities I know. We would rather risk more and fail more to obtain bigger successes than just plod along.

  3. GA says:

    Great beginning, especially as I have been in that exact situation a number of times. Mao’s image is still used as a commodity on cups, t-shirts and even souvenir “little red book” of Mao saying. As my mom would say, “he is rolling over in his grave” at what they are doing to his communist dream.

    Mark I love how you bring in discussion from other sources and directions that I would not naturally gravitate to. Your Canadian perspective gives you insight into another world view. I really appreciate the challenges from the business and financial world. When driving we sometimes as a family pray that God would help “keep the crazies away,” we should probably pray that in all aspects of our life…including philanthropy.

  4. Great post Mark! Loved that you highlighted the problem of organizations not validating women in leadership. This part was my favorite…”While many organizations and their donor bases claimed they existed to create positive pathways for women, very few had opened the pathways sufficiently to allow women into leadership of these same organizations. Deeper probing revealed barriers for women in governance or management positions, often due to theological perspectives. Yet these weren’t churches but Christian NGOs. Donors jumped on the bandwagon to liberate women, but in many cases afterwards, the women still weren’t free to exercise their God-given leadership.” This is so frustrating that these organizations trying to help bring value to women, see limits to this when it comes to leadership. Very profound truth you have highlighted, thank you!

  5. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks for this post, Mark. You definitely surveyed the literature, and brought these voices together into conversation with your own reading. Well done. I think you’re right that experience is one of our great teachers, when it comes to the promises of a marketing schtick, or just looking with a bit of skepticism at anything that comes our way. “Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

  6. Trisha Welstad says:

    Mark, I appreciated your insight on Naomi Klein. As I read that part of the text I didn’t know who she was and left it alone as a story of example proving Heath and Potter’s point. Your insight and research helped round it out and I like how you brought in philanthropy and the reasons why people give.

    Finally, do you think Emily would be willing to have the same conversations and influence with denominations with theology that empower’s women but lack the practice? Her voice is needed.

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