Published 7/30/2015
Author: Renee Ho

Photo Credit: designthinkingblog

“What we have is a non-existent group that has the greatest power to determine the lives of Europeans. It’s not answerable to anyone, given it doesn’t exist in law; no minutes are kept; and it’s confidential. No citizen ever knows what is said within . . . These are decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody.”


This is how Yanis Varoufakis– Greece’s recent ex-Minister of Finance– explains the Eurogroup, an informal body that has been at the center of the Greek debt crisis.

But it is easily how we could describe many private philanthropic foundations. Replace “Europeans” with “Africans”, “South Asians”, and yes, even “Americans”–you get the point– and the analogy seems to hold.

Americans gave $358 billion to charity in 2014.

This includes individuals (72% of total); corporations (5%); foundations (15%); and bequests (8%). This is the highest total in sixty years.

To put this in perspective, this is more than the 2014 GDP of South Africa ($350 billion).

Or, you can see it as the combined 2014 GDP of 20 countries: Senegal, Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Bolivia, Honduras, Ghana, Haiti, Niger, Rwanda, Mali, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Liberia, South Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau ($358 billion).

The human population of these countries is about 318 million, combined. This is the same as the total population of the United States in 2014.

It would be like the disenfranchisement of the entire American population.

A lot of private money is going to private charities that are not held accountable by the regular people they seek to help. We want to call these “regular people” citizens, but they are, in fact, not.

Isn’t it about time we let regular people drive what affects them most?

The Center for Effective Philanthropy conducted a survey of nonprofits to understand how many were listening to their beneficiaries. The report finds that 95% of nonprofits collect beneficiary feedback during provision of programs/services.

Kudos to the nonprofits that are collecting feedback in a meaningful and regular way. But let’s not stop with mere collection and let’s be careful with how we use the phrase “beneficiary feedback”. We need to ask: are we using this feedback to improve our policies and programs? Closing the loop is what actually makes people the drivers of change. It’s what might make for real citizens.

2 Responses to “Americans gave $358 billion to charity in 2014. Did “beneficiaries” have any say in the matter?”

  1. Josh

    August 7, 2015

    Good article, Renee. In addition to collecting feedback, I also believe that “beneficiaries” should be able to choose what services they receive from which nonprofits, rather than often being basically told that such and such nonprofit will be providing services to them on X, Y, Z. If you’re interested, here’s a post I wrote about that topic last year:

    • Renee Ho

      September 18, 2015

      I really like the blog post that you linked me to. It’s actually quite timely too because I’m writing another longer post on language. In lieu of beneficiary, we have seen citizen, constituent, stakeholder, client, and (more implicitly) consumer.

      I’m still mulling over it but I would love to get your feedback, and that of others, when it goes live– perhaps in a week or so. I’ll link to your blog post when I finalize it. The word client is an interesting one and while I really like your idea, I’m still debating the pros/cons of “client” (some of it informed by this chapter on Therapeutic Clientship in Uganda I also like this crazy idea ( somewhat related to your blogpost. Maybe you’ve seen it?

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

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