Lucy Bernholz’s central message in her book is that giving is about participation and engagement by all of us for all of us. But to be fully realized, giving must involve participation with others, must be driven by a clear set of moral and political values, and must contribute to shaping the society we want.
How We Give Now: A Philanthropic Guide for the Rest of Us, by Lucy Bernholz. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2021; 228 pp; ISBN 9780262046176.
This is a book about giving. But it is not about the conventional giving of financial donations to charities. And it is not about the wealthiest givers. It is about how people, the “rest of us,” are giving our money, time, and data in many ways, some of which are traditional and some of which are just emerging on digital platforms.
Lucy Bernholz opens her book with a personal story that serves as a tour of the “givingscape,” a term she uses to sum up the commodification of modern giving and the proliferation of giving products. She describes how during a routine trip to see her doctor, she was asked to give her personal health information to a digital assistant, asked for her time by a street solicitor wanting to save the planet, invited by a drugstore cashier to give to cure cancer, and, on her bus ride home, forced to scroll through email requests for money from a university, from an acquaintance crowdfunding for a family in need, and from an unknown non-profit. As she arrived home, she had to empty a mailbox full of solicitation envelopes. In her brief trip she was asked to give her time, money, and data in the doctor’s office, at the cash register, by email, and by snail mail. She was asked to engage in political advocacy, urged to donate funds, and told to provide personal data. We can all identify with this experience. This is the new landscape for giving, and it can be overwhelming. It can also be so focused on transaction that giving is disconnected from human relation.
In [Bernholz’s] view, commodified giving is not better giving. It applies a consumerist, market-based approach to what should be a human- and values-centred practice.
This is one of Bernholz’s key messages. In her view, commodified giving is not better giving. It applies a consumerist, market-based approach to what should be a human- and values-centred practice. But, as she notes, commodities aren’t communities. The stories of human-centred giving in her book provide a very different perspective.
Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford University and a sharp observer of philanthropy in all its guises. She has also spent much of her career focused on the impact of digital developments on civil society. At Stanford, she directs the Digital Civil Society Lab. And she writes an annual “Blueprint” survey of developments in philanthropy and civil society that has become a must-read for observers of philanthropy and non-profits, particularly in the United States. Bernholz’s long involvement in civil society studies allows her to take a wide and long perspective on how giving has evolved in the United States. Her goal in this book is not just to describe the evolution of forms of giving but to provoke a reflection on our giving patterns and choices as tokens of our engagement in our society. Giving is both personal and political, individual and collective. Taking a closer look at how people give, according to Bernholz, allows us to ask questions about how the system works, who benefits, and who the rules are for.
Giving is political in that it is a statement of values, something to build community around and something that powers communities.Lucy Bernholz
How we give says something important about what we value and how we engage with others. As Bernholz illustrates in her opening story, we are invited to make choices every day as we donate, volunteer, shop, invest, advocate, and engage politically. These actions are all forms of giving through money, time, goods, data, and votes. Her definition of giving is an inclusive one. What she is analyzing in this thoughtful book is how members of a society participate in that society to make it better, to change it for the benefit of others. The actions we take can be as private as bringing food to a neighbour and as public as signing a petition to create a community garden. There are no clear lines between charity and politics, she says. This is a provocative statement for most of us who are conditioned to think that there are indeed boundaries between charitable and political activity and that these boundaries can be described and maintained through regulatory rules that classify different activities. But, as Bernholz says, “giving is political in that it is a statement of values, something to build community around and something that powers communities.” The rules do not reflect the real world of giving, which is focused on meaningful relationships and not on which giving product to choose.
As part of her research, Bernholz engaged in many mapping conversations with groups of people around the United States in 2019. These began with a simple question: how do you give … to make the world a better place? The answers revealed a wide range of ways, well beyond donations or volunteering, in which people are using their time and money to “represent their values, to better their communities or to create change.” They are sharing kindness, donating in kind, engaging civically, making purchasing or environmental choices, or advocating, to name a few. These actions are not officially counted, or often even visible, to the policy and legal rule-makers around philanthropy. But they are reality for the majority. For many peoples and communities under constant economic and social stress, such as Indigenous, Black, and immigrants from visible minorities, these are fundamentally important human acts of mutual aid and self-help. The universal crisis of the pandemic demonstrated the importance of these acts for all of us, including for those of us living in privileged and white communities. Far beyond money or time, the spontaneous exchanges and self-organization of people in the face of the health crisis reinforced the need for collective giving responses.
The most powerful giving we can do is to give ourselves to the democratic project of building and running public systems (and rules) that serve all of us.Lucy Bernholz
To illustrate the power of collective acts of giving, Bernholz tells stories of people across the United States activating political and civic power, mobilizing against corporate power, and building alliances for justice led by those most harmed by racist systems and assumptions. Through chapters on crowdfunding and giving circles, movement building and citizen activism, community investing and credit, retail giving, and new choices for giving personal data for public benefit, she explores the multiple ways in which people make giving choices that positively affect their communities. It’s worth noting, as an aside, that a helpful appendix of “buzzwords” at the end of the book is provided to define the many terms and concepts that are turning up today in the givingscape, which Bernholz has tracked in her study of civil and digital society over the years.
In her conclusion, Bernholz returns to the broader question of the relationship between individual giving and collective impact. Giving can be celebrated as an individual’s contribution to the common good. As an expression of moral values, it should be encouraged. But beyond this, Bernholz is a strong believer in the importance of our public systems, which she describes as our biggest collective acts. In her view, “the most powerful giving we can do is to give ourselves to the democratic project of building and running public systems (and rules) that serve all of us.” She makes the case for public pressure to change the tax rules that incentivize giving by the wealthy, that disincentivize or place barriers to political engagement and advocacy, and rules on digital platforms that do not protect privacy or free expression. Her book is a call to attention addressed to an audience of foundations, wealthy donors, policy-makers, and fundraisers who are caught up in the commodified world of transactions. She wants to reveal how systems devised primarily by white rule-makers have had the effect of breaking apart and individuating practices of giving that for many non-white communities are collective and mutually oriented.
For a democracy under threat, as Bernholz perceives it to be in the United States, giving time, money, and data with others to knit together communities and redress historical inequities is urgent and necessary.
Bernholz chose the title of her book deliberately. She wanted to include all of us in her use of “we” and how “we” give. No matter our social or economic or racial identity, we are all human, and the experience of giving our time, money, and data is universal. However, those of us who work in professional worlds of finance, law, public policy, or philanthropy may feel a disconnect between how we practise giving in private and how we talk and think about giving in our professional guises. It is difficult to stand outside a system and see the possibilities for change under normal circumstances. The opportunity of the pandemic has given all of us a chance to reflect on these possible disconnects and to work toward changes. The recent debate in Canada on the regulatory rules regarding “direction and control” in interactions between charities and other entities is a good example of seeing and seizing that opportunity for change.
Bernholz’s central message is that giving is about participation and engagement by all of us for all of us. Humans as social beings have always been givers, in that sense. Bernholz strongly rejects the rhetoric around the so-called new “democratization” of giving that many use today in describing the new digitally facilitated giving platforms or the proliferation of options such as donor-advised funds. Giving has always been available to every human being. In itself, Bernholz says, it can be deeply rewarding. Yet, she believes, to be fully realized, giving must involve participation with others, must be driven by a clear set of moral and political values, and must contribute to shaping the society we want. Her message is ultimately a political one. For a democracy under threat, as she perceives it to be in the United States, giving time, money, and data with others to knit together communities and redress historical inequities is urgent and necessary.
Her point of view may be a more radical one than many donors would take. But this provocative book prompts for me a reconsideration of the modern consumer giving “industry.” We can all heed her call to use our giving more thoughtfully to build stronger bonds with each other as we face an uncertain future.