Turning Beneficiaries into Assets (and Why It’s Not a Good Thing)

Sometime around 1739, the founders of London’s Foundling Hospital were the first people in the modern age to use the word ‘philanthropy’ to mean the project of forming “a voluntary enterprise of private persons, moved by ‘an Inclination to promote Publick Good.’”1Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy” in Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, edited by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie (New York: Cambridge, 2002), 37 This is what philanthropy means in the modern world: private wealth used for public good. The ‘public good’ that the creators of the Foundling Hospital had in mind, though, wasn’t just the good of the abandoned children they cared for. They believed that the children could be molded into model citizens – “useful hands” and “good and faithful servants”2Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy,” 37 – who would work for the expansion of English power. Of course, this meant that those children would be encouraged to support the interests of their benefactors, who held power, privilege, and prestige.

I bring this up because Maeve Strathy at What Gives? – a blog I really quite like – recently applauded a little linguistic trick that I find… disturbing:

On Monday, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Evelyne Guindon, CEO of Cuso International. I was recording a podcast for Blakely and Evelyne was my interviewee this time around. (Stay tuned for the podcast, by the way!)

Evelyne said something that really resonated with me. She referred to the beneficiaries of their work as “assets”.

Assets.

I absolutely loved that.

I understand why Strathy loves this. We in the nonprofit sector, especially those of us who are fundraisers and communicators, love coming at ideas from new angles. And one of our favorite things to do is change the way we use language: it’s not a nonprofit, it’s for impact; it’s not charity, it’s philanthropy; we don’t inform, we involve; they aren’t a donor, they’re an investor! Sometimes, that helps us think and behave a different way. And, of course, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, saying “they’re not a beneficiary, they’re an asset” is supposed to help us think that this isn’t someone we’re helping, she’s someone who can contribute to society!

The problem is that assets aren’t living, breathing people with hopes and aspirations. They’re things (or people, or qualities) that are useful and valuable and, usually, owned. They serve a purpose. They exist to serve a purpose. They exist to serve a purpose for the person who controls them.

And so the young woman in Strathy’s example “isn’t the beneficiary of donor support; she is an asset that’s been tapped into through donor support. It’s like she’s a natural resource that just hadn’t been discovered yet.”

She is, in other words, a thing that can be put to use: a vein of ore, an oil reservoir, a forest that can be chopped down. She can be put to use. And the question we need to ask is to whose use she can be put. Is she being being empowered for her own good? Or is she being made into a good citizen of global market capitalism?

We also need to admit that there’s nothing wrong with being a beneficiary. There’s nothing wrong with needing or receiving help. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with helping someone. Helping is a good thing. Being helped is a good thing. Helping each other is a good thing.

Update: Strathy posted a follow-up.

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