The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty

In The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, Erica Kohl-Arenas impressively weaves together three case studies covering fifty years of intervention in one location to illuminate the the ways in which philanthropies have not only failed to alleviate poverty, but have also drawn away resources from endeavors that may have had a greater impact. At the same time, she shows evidence of the influence that activists have had on the philanthropic sector, and describes the dilemmas so many of us face as we attempt to further the cause of social justice within existing institutions and power structures.

When I opened The Self-Help Myth, I am a little embarrassed to admit, I thought I would find more evidence to bolster my current practice and very little necessity for self-critique. After all, as a policy analyst, who has never completely bought into some of the bootstrapping mythology that is present in parts of the social service sector, I thought I had avoided the traps of blaming the individual (or the community) victim of social, political and institutional forces.

But, of course, none of us are immune to the larger socio-political context of our work, and in Kohl-Arenas’ analysis, I found some soul searching necessary. The most personally challenging chapter for me was, “Foundation-Driven Collaborative Initiatives: Civic Participation for What?”  Let’s face it, while my values have remained intact over the years, I have, in the name of efficacy, advocated at times for “achievable goals,” incremental policy change, and palatable language. I have used public health frameworks to advocate for a host of social justice initiatives from criminal justice reform to wage supports. I got into community-based participatory research with an eye toward bringing some of the research money into communities, but found it rather fails on the economic development front, no matter how equitable the financial arrangements. And I have a deep drive to cross-pollinate ideas and movements, though have found that foundation-driven initiatives often have a mandates that undermine self-efficacy and enthusiasm.

The Self-Help Myth is an absorbing narrative of the quest for social change and the forces that support and undermine it, sometimes simultaneously. For anyone, doing anything in the non-profit sector, it is recommended reading.  For program officers and those accepting foundation money, it is especially vital.