Too Big, Too Distant, Too far in the Future: The Challenge of Philanthropy at World Scale


Modern philanthropy is nothing if not ambitious. “The Rockefeller Foundation works to improve the well-being of people everywhere.” “For 20 years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been committed to fighting the greatest inequities in the world.”

We may argue about which causes should be priorities but there is only rare disagreement that we need to find solutions that scale. Indeed, one generally accepted justification for organized philanthropy’s claim to legitimacy is that it represents society’s risk capital. The notion is that the social innovations foundations generate as experiments can achieve scale by “graduating” to other means: through the market with microfinance, or through the government with the Head Start program for early childhood education, once philanthropy demonstrated that these innovations worked at more modest scale.

This may be well and fine for organizations like foundations, which account for less than a fifth of giving in the U.S. But what about the rest of us?  Individuals, families, and smaller community foundations operate within parameters that do not readily extend beyond our more constrained personal experiences. And the smaller scale of community remains vital for personal engagement with philanthropy. This is born out through the craft of the fundraiser, whose profession is building a community around a cause and motivating the support it warrants.

Furthermore, innovation often happens at the community level before it scales. Scientists join academic societies, startup founders form associations, and activists begin strategizing in coffee houses or at kitchen tables. Even Effective Altruists who seek an impersonal calculus for doing good, aiming to rise above the natural human partiality to those closest to us, have formed a community to discuss and promote their efforts. As United Kingdom scholar of philanthropy Rhodri Davies explains why he chose not to join the Effective Altruism movement, one of several thoughtful reasons he puts forward is that the movement is “cult-like.” In other words, it demands an intense and all-encompassing communal commitment from its adherents, even as they seek to make their giving devoid of communal biases.

Too often, we seek to resolve the tension between scale and community by picking one side and arguing for its superiority. Liberalism has its feud with communitarianism. The American founding had Hamilton arguing for programs at the federal scale while Jefferson exalted the virtues of small-scale public life at the local level. More recently, the philanthropic consultant Jeremy Beer wrote an engaging critique of modern, scale-focused philanthropy illustrating how it has displaced the more personally meaningful notion of charity, which, though unsystematic, has the virtue of happening at a smaller scale where it can truly engage our sentiments and our unique personalities.

But the tension between scale and community is probably not solvable by argument or algorithm. It is an ongoing challenge that we have to navigate. And it does not look to be getting any easier.

Today scale is evident in the data platforms whose user numbers exceed the populations of most countries as they absorb ever more commercial and leisure activity. Every startup seeks to scale – to create an extensive network that makes it the singular preferred solution in its space. There are often significant benefits that come with scale – efficiency, effectiveness, and connectivity in ways that would seem magical to our ancestors.

Yet something is lost at scale. Try to reach a customer service agent at your favorite social media site. Or try to interact with your government without using the language that helps it understand you as an instance of the impersonal categories in which it places every citizen.

You would think that philanthropists would have their hands full by simply trying to navigate the tension between benefiting those closest and most personally precious while also seeking to help those who are in need but distant and unfamiliar. To complicate matters further, into this tension between scaling and caring we are asked to face the issue of time. 

In his bold new book, William McCaskill, one of the luminaries of the Effective Altruism movement, goes beyond the injunction to do the most good wherever it is most needed on the globe. He wants us to urgently consider all of the unborn humans in the future. And this is the very distant future, which contains many more times the number of humans than have ever existed in the relatively short history of humanity to date. In this extended future, the vast majority of humans yet to be born await their fair share of current benevolence.

The scale of future humanity is staggering. Everything we do now creates chains of consequences that will shape how most of humanity will live long after everyone alive today is gone. Perhaps it is the weight of such consequences that is paralyzing many wealthy people as they stock up their funds instead of giving them away with any urgency. Certainly, one of the world’s wealthiest in this category has expressed his affinity to McCaskill’s very long-term view.

It is hard not to view so much of what happens in our intimate communities as paling in value when considered against such metrics of scale. Small communities are unlikely to have abundant resources and will be focused on the more immediate problems communities can manage. In this more modest context, however, we are full persons, complete, known, and recognized as distinctive and irreducible to a metric that measures us in terms of quantities, distances, and time.

And here, it is essential to remember that philanthropy is a unique institution that traverses the intimate sphere of the family as it progresses to consider all of humanity, currently alive and yet to be born. One dynamic project that has focused on community to build impact for many organizations is the Community Collaboration Initiative fostered by our school’s Muslim Philanthropy Initiative, about which you can read more later in this issue.

Philanthropy can scale across different dimensions: impact, size, distance, and time. But it can also be small, idiosyncratic, and peculiar to specific people and their circumstances. There will be those who cannot or do not want to scale their care beyond a specific community.

Data from the Global Philanthropy Tracker indicate that American civil society now sends more money across borders to support citizens of other countries than does our government. Indeed, philanthropic flows have been growing in importance across donor countries as a group. It is increasingly challenging to have purely local causes that can be isolated from what happens in distant places.

Whether we like it or not, and whether we seek to have an impact at scale, developments at scale affect what we attempt to achieve. We will need both the impersonal technologies that allow us to operate and care at scale and the more intimate communicative and caring work of community as we move forward.

To paraphrase a quip on war attributed to Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in scale, but scale is interested in you.

Best regards,

Amir Pasic signature 

Amir Pasic

Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Community Collaboration Initiative: A Year of Learning

Muslim Collaboration Prizes Awards Celebration 2022 at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL.
Philanthropic foundations’ efforts to be inclusive are facilitated when they have a meaningful, structured, intentional and long interaction with marginalized groups, a new report from the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative (MPI) at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds. 

A Year of Learning: Educating the Philanthropic Community About Racialized and Stigmatized Nonprofits reports that foundations continue to hesitate in becoming inclusive, especially of Muslim-led nonprofit organizations. The report finds this hesitation is based upon concern that their investments may go to a “bad actor,” signaling the success of Islamophobia, lack of knowledge or awareness about Muslim-led nonprofits and their impact, and not knowing how to engage with Muslim-led nonprofits.

The report is the result of a yearlong engagement between philanthropic foundations and Muslim-led nonprofits organized by the Waraich Family Fund, Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, the Community Collaboration Initiative at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Field Foundation and Forefront. The project built upon similar efforts to engage philanthropic foundations and indigenous American communities.

“A Year of Learning highlights the importance of increasing the understanding foundations have about U.S. Muslims and the unique challenges faced by Muslim-led nonprofits,” said Dilnaz Waraich, President of the Waraich Family Fund. “Many donors lack a full appreciation for the positive impact Muslim-led organizations are having on their communities and society. This underappreciation of these organization’s contribution to the social safety net and the potential to do more with proper funding often puts Muslim-led nonprofits at a disadvantage when seeking funding and in providing innovative high-quality programs to the very populations many funders want to reach.”

The Year of Learning project included conversations that focused on learning about Muslim Americans and Muslim-led nonprofit organizations and how philanthropic foundations can meaningfully engage with marginalized and underrepresented groups like Muslim Americans.

The report found that the yearlong project helped raise awareness, create understanding and generate action for change with possible long-term implications. The project helped build relationships between Muslim-led nonprofits and philanthropy. Project activities also increased confidence and knowledge among Muslim-led nonprofits about how they can engage with philanthropic foundations in a meaningful way.

“By bringing together philanthropic foundations and Muslim-led nonprofits, the Year of Learning enabled difficult, honest conversations and closer connections among organizations that knew relatively little about each other, benefitting both types of organizations and the communities they serve,” said Amir Pasic, Ph.D., the Eugene R. Tempel Dean of the school. “The early successes of this project offer potential lessons and insights for how the philanthropic sector can form productive relationships with other marginalized and underrepresented populations.”

The Year of Learning project resulted in the establishment of the Muslim Collaboration Prizes (MCP). Over $1 million was awarded on October 1, 2022 in Chicago by the MCP to five collaborations by Muslim-led nonprofit organizations.

“The Muslim Collaboration Prizes are an example of a multi-donor-engaged strategy to amplify collaborations among nonprofit organizations,” said Shariq Siddiqui, Ph.D., director of MPI. “Our research suggests that by engaging with racialized communities, we can acknowledge and support marginalized communities that want to collaborate. Investing in Muslim nonprofits willing to collaborate with both Muslim-led nonprofits and interfaith partnerships will strengthen this small but important sector.”

The Year of Learning was part of a three-year project, the Community Collaboration Initiative, which was a partnership between the Waraich Family Fund and MPI. The Community Collaboration Initiative brought together 22 Muslim-led nonprofits to collaborate by building trust and engaging in mission-centered joint activities through the use of expert third-party facilitators.

Read the "A Year of Learning: Educating the Philanthropic Community About Racialized and Stigmatized Nonprofits" report.