“The Self-Help Myth” Tells an Important Story About Philanthropy

Written by: Craig McGarvey

Date: January 14, 2016

In The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, Erica Kohl-Arenas’ first book, The New School professor is bent on busting some fondly held philanthropic beliefs. Thoroughly researched, beautifully written and convincingly argued, The Self-Help Myth explains how philanthropy, by its inherent nature, often fails in its attempts to reduce inequity and poverty.

The setting is California’s Great Central Valley, a region Kohl-Arenas knows well. The wealthiest food production area in the history of the world, the Central Valley is also home to some of the poorest people in America, many of whom are immigrant farm workers.

Historically under-resourced by philanthropy, the Central Valley has seen at least three major periods of sustained foundation investment since the 1960s. Kohl-Arenas offers case studies of each, demonstrating how well-intentioned grant programs, unwilling to address the structural issues behind poverty, have diluted, diverted and co-opted farmworker community efforts that challenge the California farming economy’s status quo.

The thrust of the book’s argument is sadly not new: private foundation funding has little appetite for taking on the American economic system that created the “capital surplus” that allows for philanthropy’s pool of wealth.

Kohl-Arenas makes her greatest contribution by showing that philanthropic influence is rarely heavy-handed, top-down or hegemonic. Rather, it is more often a set of complex negotiations, full of nuance, within contextual constraints on both the philanthropic and community sides of the table.

By means of literature review, extensive archival analysis, participant observation and scores of interviews, Kohl-Arenas describes in fascinating detail how this complex foundation/community dance has played out over five decades of work and millions of dollars of investment in the Central Valley.

During the ’60s and ’70s, the evolving conversation between the Field Foundation and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Worker (UFW) movement helped to steer the latter away from “mutual assistance,” “all-volunteer,” “dues paying,” “self-sustaining” organizing, and toward the creation and maintenance of a bevy of 501(c)(3) service organizations. In the ’90s, the Stewart Kinney Foundation’s Immigrant Participation Collaborative[i] “launched two successful campaigns and several productive projects,” but ultimately demonstrated the difficulty of building lasting “strategic coalitions” from “monetarily-driven partnerships.” In the early 2000s, the Western Foundation’s Farm Worker Community Building Initiative, guided by a “double-bottom line,” “win-win,” “philanthrocapitalism” approach that sought to engage both farmers and farm worker organizations, diverted attention from “action organizing” to “leadership training,” and never did manage to bring farmers to the table.

Kohl-Arenas organizes her analysis under the umbrella of “civic participation,” and its many possible interpretations inside and outside foundation offices. Is “civic participation” a guise through which canny, progressive program officers sell hard-action community organizing to conservative, confrontation-shy board members of their foundations? Is it a hegemonic means by which the wealthy place the burden of changing their life conditions on the backs of the poor, while ignoring any challenge to the economic structures that have entrapped them in poverty?

Civic participation is this and more, as Kohl-Arenas enables us to understand. As she says in her conclusion:

“[Traditional philanthropy] tells people how to help themselves in order to change their purportedly bad behaviors, neutralize conflict and maintain systems of power. [Radical action] calls for people to analyze their own relationship to power in order to transform it. Most often we are caught somewhere in between.”

Kohl-Arenas also writes about South Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker group that provides an ideal model for philanthropy-supported organizing. CIW is known for authentic ownership by its farmworker members, as well as for its politically savvy strategies to transform power relationships. Kohl-Arenas mentions support given to CIW by the Kellogg Foundation, and we readers eagerly wish to know more about the ongoing relationship between CIW and its funders. Perhaps this will be her next book.

In her research and teaching on philanthropy and participatory community engagement, Professor Kohl-Arenas describes herself as working in the space “between scholarship and practice.” At a time when prominent foundations like the Ford Foundation are refocusing their work “to disrupt the drivers of inequality,” the field needs many more such scholar practitioners. Let’s encourage the strategic planners at all foundations interested in promoting equality and ending poverty to read Kohl-Arenas’ important book.

Craig McGarvey previously served as a foundation program officer, and worked in California’s Central Valley with Erica Kohl-Arenas.

[i] Names have been disguised under ethnographic protocol.