Bearing Witness

Fred Smith

This post originally appeared on The Gathering blog.

The first time I read the phrase “bearing witness” was in Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” recounting the horrors of the Holocaust and the responsibility he felt never to forget or allow others to dismiss what happened there. Over the years, the phrase has come to mean more. We bear witness by standing up for something in danger of being overlooked or discounted. We use it to defend unpopular causes and ideas. I would describe Phil Buchanan’s new book, “Giving Done Right” as bearing witness to the too often dismissed best intentions of both non-profits and philanthropy in a time when both are suspect.

There is no shortage of books and articles on the excesses and misuse of charitable giving on the part of donors and charities alike. Decades ago, Teresa Odendahl described the consistent pattern of elite philanthropy to support institutions that prop up an unfair social system by serving the interests of the upper class. In the same way, Ken Stern’s book, “With Charity for All” is a sometimes humorous but pointed expose of the rampant fraud in non-profits that has eaten away at the credibility of many.

What is different about “Giving Done Right” is it is neither an indictment of philanthropy or a self-righteous defense of non-profits. It is thoughtful and articulate in supporting not only the principles of effective giving but the value and contribution of effective non-profits in our history and future as a country. It is an argument for reducing the distance between donors and recipients not through superficial conversations about cooperation and collaboration but about the hard discipline of building trust. Both givers and receivers need to understand their roles and responsibilities while working to truly value the work of the other. It is one of the wisdom figures of this practice of philanthropy, Mario Morino, who puts the right twist on this meaning of bearing witness. “You’ve got to spend the time with an organization if you are going to really make a significant gift. You’ve got to bear witness.”

For years I have been questioning if philanthropy is a word that has either lost its traditional definition (love of mankind) or should never have been used to describe giving in the first place. After all, “phileo” is a particular kind of love. It is not the broad love of mankind. It is friendship. It is what happens when two or more people discover they have in common some insight or interest that is not shared by others. It is not the love of the other person (and certainly not mankind in general) but a love of what they share in common. Friends are absorbed in an interest outside themselves.

We have diluted the true meaning of what we call philanthropy and been caught up in a love that is not phileo at all. It is now something else entirely. For some, it is “love of solutions” or “love of fixing intractable problems” or even “love of feeling love” but it is not true phileo. There is little sense of being companions and sharing a common interest. Instead, it is making investments in solutions. It is fixing the broken parts of the world. All of that needs doing but it is not phileo.

It is exactly that relationship of trust and mutual interest that Buchanan’s book encourages. Yes, there are lists and guides for effective giving along with genuine wisdom that comes from experience and learning from many of the best practitioners in philanthropy and non-profit work. His insights on the dangers of depending so heavily on the language and concepts of business management are a welcome balance to what has become a distortion of both business and non-profit tools. His warnings about becoming easy prey to the appeals of impact and simplistic measurement of everything is not a denial of the value of focusing on results. Finally, the consistent encouragement for the necessity of becoming competent and teachable donors is invaluable for offsetting the assumptions of suddenly wealthy entrepreneurs wanting to make a difference in a world for which they have little experience.

However, for me, it is his insistence that we focus on the best that each has to offer in our pursuit of working together toward a common purpose that makes this book so valuable. It is about the genuine friendship that is possible.

Tefillin are small black leather boxes encasing the essential wisdom of the Hebrew texts. “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes.” I could make an argument that the essence of this book might be condensed in such a way to make it available as a constant reminder, bearing witness to the work of philanthropy when done right.

Fred Smith is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries.

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