The Era of Abstract Philanthropy

It would be a great thing for an era of Abstract Philanthropy to open our eyes to understanding the very essence of the philanthropic act.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco recently. I’m not very knowledgeable about art, but I always enjoy it when I take the time to pause and pay attention. In the abstract art wing, there were a ton of fantastic paintings, none of which made me want to say “my five-year-old could have done that!”. But then I came across the White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg.

It is a white canvas coated in white paint. I have to admit that my first reaction was somewhere along the lines of, “Give me a break! That’s not art!”. But I took the time to pop on the audio tour and was surprised to find myself quickly recognizing the value of the piece.

It turns out that Rauschenberg painted the White Painting as an intentional attempt to see how much content he could strip out of a painting and still have it have meaning. When he showed the paintings in 1951, it created a mini-scandal in the art world as many people had the same reaction I did and saw no value to the work.

However, what the White Painting does is create an unique opportunity for the viewer to contemplate what it is that makes any piece of art meaningful. Is a white canvas with a blue square on it art? How about a canvas splattered lightly with paint? What about a heavy splatter? What if the paint is “splattered” so that it gives you an impression of images that you recognize. Suddenly we’re talking about Monet, widely considered one of the most talented artists of all time and leading example of Impressionism, a style of painting of which nobody questions the artistic value.

What the White Painting does is create an experience that forces the viewer to come to terms with their own understanding of the value and meaning of art. By achieving this goal, the White Painting becomes infused with value and meaning of its own.

I think philanthropy might be undergoing its own “abstract” phase. Is microfinance “philanthropy”? What about for-profit microfinance? Is corporate philanthropy good? Is Groupon a social enterprise? How about Chevron (they provide the energy that drives the world after all). Should we celebrate the advent of charitable giving being embedded in consumer transactions or despair? If you add a Facebook Cause to your profile are you a philanthropists? Or are only gifts of time and money “really” philanthropy?

Not everything is art. Art has meaning and value. Not everything is philanthropy. Philanthropy has meaning and value.

But with the White Painting we see the ultimate stripped down attempt at art and amazingly we find that it has meaning. I think we should take the same approach to thinking about philanthropy as we contemplate the value and meaning (or lack thereof) in new efforts to create social impact that stray far outside the familiar realm of donating and volunteering.

Abstract art did not degrade the value and meaning of the great works of classical art. Instead, abstract art helped open society’s eyes to understanding the very essence of artistic expression.

In a world where even traditional donations are deemed to not have value if they do not conform to the values of the viewer, it would be a great thing for an era of Abstract Philanthropy to open our eyes to understanding the very essence of the philanthropic act.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • Melanie Audette's avatar

    BY Melanie Audette

    ON January 21, 2011 11:24 PM

    Hi, Sean, I love art, philanthropy and your post. The definition of philanthropy as giving dollars has for quite some time been expanded to include “time” and “talent,” as well as the “treasure” one thinks of first—at least in the lexicon of our active youth philanthropy initiative here in Indiana. But organizing my young son’s after school philanthropy club has helped me understand that it goes even further. For instance, collecting socks and snacks for troops (like Operation US Troop Support in Fort Wayne) would be part of a typical (and exceptional) example of youth philanthropy; however the conversation recently turned to the men and women in service in Afghanistan - yes, they are paid, but they are offering up the ultimate sacrifice. Aren’t they philanthropists just by the nature of the gift they give as a part of their work? If that is the case, how about fire fighters?  The list goes on, but the point is—don’t you love the fact that the canvas of philanthropy is allowed to include so much more than the iconographic man in a smoky room pulling puppet strings?

    Thanks for reminding us to think about how the limits are being pushed in philanthropy. I can’t imagine there could there be a problem with the more the merrier as far as the spirit of act goes.

    Rauschenberg still inspires! And, as always, you do, too.

  • sstannardstockton's avatar

    BY sstannardstockton

    ON January 24, 2011 09:12 AM

    Glad you liked the post Melanie! The only warning I would give is that while I think “abstract philanthropy” offers us lessons in the true meaning of philanthropy, that doesn’t mean we should celebrate every effort. For instance, Lucy Bernholz and others have highlighted problems with Embedded Giving (when a purchase includes a charitable gift). I think she’s probably right. But I also think the rise of embedded giving is useful in helping us understand what is and what is *not* philanthropy.

  • Melanie Audette's avatar

    BY Melanie Audette

    ON February 3, 2011 03:38 PM

    Apropos today’s comments about Pepsi Refresh campaign: Fine lines. In this case it was “not a corporate philanthropy effort.” (insert quizzical look)

  • BY Kevin Johnson

    ON February 3, 2011 04:16 PM


    Thoughtful post. Thank you for writing it. This could be the start for much discussion about the nature of philanthropy. It’s also quite timely.

    These are times of change. In such times, seeds of change take root. One seed clearly rooted is the idea the charitable tax deduction is optional. The proposal to completely eliminate the charitable tax deduction for gifts to nonprofits was featured in recent recommendations to manage the federal budget. Regardless of political stripe, it is clear that national tax policy must change in the coming years. “How” is the challenging question.

    If the deduction were lowered, or eliminated all together, in the coming years what might happen? Research soon to be released suggests that the result will certainly be negative in regards to fundraising.  But if the deduction were eliminated would that truly be bad news?

    But front and center in that discussion about tax policy COULD also be a conversation about the future of philanthropy and what it could mean in coming decades.

    For many donors who itemize their taxes eliminating the deduction increases the cost of each dollar donated. Yet, while there is a relationship between taxes and giving, people still give. Tax policy is a driver – but it is certainly not THE reason people give or don’t give.

    The nonprofit community relies on the proposition that giving saves on taxes and therefore it “saves you money.” “Your gift is tax deductible” or “It’s for charity – you can deduct it” are familiar expressions embedded in many charity appeals. That methodology, or link in the value proposition so to speak, will disappear along with the deduction.

    Subtracting the “it’s deductible” subtext means the landscape of fundraising and philanthropy could shift.  This might be positive in the long run for nonprofits.

    Note wanting to post something too lengthy, I wrote a bit more about this topic here:

    Kevin Johnson
    Retriever Development Counsel, LLC
    Author of “The Power of Legacy and Planned Giving: How Donors and Nonprofits Can Change the World”

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.

The Power of Simple

By Lisa Benenson 1

How the Natural Resources Defense Council effectively unearthed and reframed compelling research to raise public awareness and effect policy change around food waste.