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Several months ago I posted about “The Poverty-Creation Industry, so I was fascinated to see Peter Buffett’s (son of Warren Buffett) New York Times Op-Ed on the “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” Peter starts by discussing the unintended consequences of well intentioned people trying to solve complex problems with out an understanding of the complex systems in place.

“Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.”

Between 2001 and 2011, the total number of nonprofits globally increased 25 percent, and they are growing at a rate that now exceeds both the business and government sectors. Nonprofits have become a massive industry with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.

Amongst the hundreds of thousands of NGO’s there are some that are taking daring risks to solve problems in incredibly innovative ways, working to disrupt the social and political systems that have created global economic injustice and the destruction of our planet.

But very few are willing to take real risks. Mostly they want predictable results, with little chance of embarrassment.

As Peter Buffett goes one step further in challenging our philanthropic community, “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

“I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.

Often I hear people say, “if only they had what we have” (clean water, access to health products and free markets, better education, safer living conditions). Yes, these are all important. But no “charitable” (I hate that word) intervention can solve any of these issues. It can only kick the can down the road.

He concludes with, “What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you could not solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there.”

Individuals must invest in those charities that are most willing to take risks on solutions that are not simply focused on narrow incremental change but are committed to challenging the system that ensures a cycle of poverty and pollution. We have created a vast, complex economy that predictably produces the social and environmental problems we face. Those with the greatest amounts of money to give away are usually the biggest beneficiaries of that morally bankrupt system.

Don’t stop giving money away, but begin to challenge the organizations you give to, to do more, be bolder, and take greater risks in the hope of producing greater change.

What organizations have already accepted this challenge? I can’t produce an exhaustive list, but I’ll name a few:


– “BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) catalyses lasting change, creating an ecosystem in which the poor have the chance to seize control of their own lives. We do this with a holistic development approach geared toward inclusion, using tools like microfinance, education, healthcare, legal services, community empowerment and more. Their work now touches the lives of an estimated 135 million people.

– As co-board chair, I couldn’t not mention Greenpeace, the leading independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.

– Lastly, the American Sustainable Business Council , where I am also co-chair and who’s mission is to advance public policies that ensure a vibrant, just, and sustainable economy.

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