“We’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”

Your Working Girl has a soft spot for Americans.  She does.  With all due respect to stereotype, they can be a ‘hi, how are ya’ nation.  She finds they wear their heart on their sleeves. They share their opinions with gusto.  They engage in political debate with vigor.

And so it was with Peter Buffett, son of Omaha billionaire businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

Peter Buffett is someone who has seen the no-profit sector up close.  He and his wife Nicole run the billion dollar, NoVo Foundation whose mission is to “foster transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership.”

And according to his op-ed piece in the New York Times, he’s had a belly full.

The article, The Charitable Industrial Complex, unleashed a torrent of criticism and controversy when Buffett wrote that wealthy people “launder their conscience” as they “heroically” give back to the communities that are destroyed by their accumulation of wealth.

He says this type of philanthropy 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.”

His conclusion?

“As long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”

Interest in the commentary was intense.

“Buffett’s piece has sparked the biggest debate over philanthropy in years,” proclaimed Robert Frank of CNBC, “probably the biggest since Warren Buffett and Bill Gates launched the Giving Pledge in 2010.”  (The Giving Pledge is a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.)

Responses came from every quarter.

Forbes said it’s not that philanthropy provides “little more than a band-aid” for big problems that makes it ineffective, but that “it has become unfriendly to the creation of wealth.”

Nonprofit Quarterly wrote “Buffett is attempting to say that this sector has been bought off, and indeed that is somewhat, though not as completely as he claims, the case.”

Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors and promoters of Philanthropcapitalism which “stresses the importance of philanthropic money being used as risk capital, and of achieving systemic change” dismissed Buffet with an arrogance that Your Working Girl found surprising.

“Peter is a decent musician and a fine fellow who wrote a useful book about the personal challenges of being born into a wealthy family…” they sniffed, “but [with the op-ed], we ultimately got a heartfelt but depressing and ultimately useless rant.”


Even Peter Buffett is not immune to the sarcastic wit of the New York Bureau of the Economist of which Matthew Bishop is the Chief.

What is interesting to Your Working Girl is that this debate – and the op-ed piece – received no coverage in Canada. Imagine Canada sent a Tweet with a link to the article and AFP Ottawa referred to it on its Facebook, but no major outlet did a story and no fundraising organization responded.

And to Your Working Girls eyes and ears, this is the debate in the land of Making the World a Better Place.   Forget executive compensation and cost to raise a dollar.

Surely there are bigger questions.

Does treating systemic problems like poverty and inequity with a ‘charitable’ cure actually work?

Are we feeling okay with industries like Canadian mining, accused of human rights and environmental abuses, using charities to spit shine their sagging international reputations by ‘giving back?’

Is the $10 billion charitable complex in Canada actually working for the people it claims to serve?

Your Working Girl, for one, would love to hear the many sides of this debate from a Canadian perspective.

Game on?

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  1. the rich gets richer and the poor poorer, welcome globalization, we will see pretty soon 2 types of people in the world; lords (transnationals, monopolies & the Mega rich) and servants (the rest) who are going to be obligated to work for them in order to survive

  2. I’m afraid what you’re saying is in the process of coming true Israel, my friend. Ready to man the barricades? Or should I say, staff the barricades!

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