Critically rethinking charity

18 Mar

It’s all about TED Talks, isn’t it? Maybe there are lousy ones, but every time I watch one, a light goes on. In this case, it’s the light I’ve been trying to turn on, but while I was rubbing two sticks together, Dan Pallotta was hooking up the Klieg lights.

If you haven’t already watched his TED Talk “The way we think about charity is dead wrong,” please stop reading this blog and go watch it now (

I just have this to say (clearing my throat):



As I listened to Pallotta, I kept saying my version of “Amen” (which is, “Sing it, sister!”)

His (and I like to think, our) points, in brief:

  • We ought to pay people well for doing work that makes the world a better place. This is my response when folks wonder about paying the high fees of folks like Tim Wise, who speak about and consult on white privilege. Why would we quibble over professional wages for social justice, when we readily pay someone loads more for making the world more unjust? This is Pallotta’s essential question. Of course, it’s important that we look at the inequities within industries as well as across them, as merit alone does not explain Wise’s prominence in our field.
  • Use the same effective practices you use for other endeavors (including for profit and “non-social justice” work) in your social justice efforts. I advise schools this way: look at what you do well, whether its admissions, fund-raising or hiring. What are the practices and habits of mind that you bring to that work? How can you leverage, import and benefit from those practices and habits in your inclusion and equity work? As Pallotta says, instead of writing a “separate rulebook,” just adapt the one that already works for you.

And finally, his overarching theme (which I won’t make any co-claims to): don’t confuse morality with frugality. Don’t limit necessary and potentially great social change work by imposing Puritanical guilt and conventions on it. When trying to discern what organizations and initiatives to invest your resources in to make the world a more equitable and inclusive place for diverse people, “ask about the scale of their dreams,” ask what they need from you and then do all that you can do.

** Thanks to my friend EB for the link.

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