VitalSpark: Coalition Blog

Posted: 06 May 2010, in Blog

What Did The Calvinists Do For Us? This is the big question lunchtime keynote speaker Dan Pallotta asks. He’s the author of Thinking Different: How Does The Way We’ve been Taught To Think About Charity And Social Change stand In The Way Of The Causes We Love. A regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, thankfully his speech turns out  more pithy than his title.  As for the answer to the question,  frankly anyone brought up in Scotland would say; don’t get me started!  Calvinism brought us John Knox, preacher from hell   with a  licence to screw us up. We’re all sinners!  How different from laid back San Francisco can you get? And yet according to Mr P there was contagion. The Calvinists came over here to make money and were ruthless business people and yet hated themselves for being rich,  so invented charity as a  way of getting rid of the money they made while getting to Heaven. This therefore conditions us when asked for a donation, to  ask the ridiculous question- how much of my money is going directly to the front line? As opposed to asking about impact and outcomes. Overheads are not considered part of the cause – but Pallotta says,  punching his hand in the air – they should be! Funders systematically  focus on keeping overheads low, so charities skimp on staff salaries and training, working conditions and risk capital.. So we are  therefore are lft with the  strange Calvinist paradox that  a ruthless polluting  businessman who gives 1 percent of his salary is called a philanthropist, yet  when an effective charity manager devoting his life to the cause.  asks for a raise, he’s called immoral. Charities are also chronically hampered by a lack of investment in serious advertising, in the inability to take risks in case of failure – unlike the way U.S. business is indulged – and there is also no mechanism for long term investment like a stock market.      Thought provoking stuff. And Mr P gets big applause. He’s dead right , charity is an old  construct but from a European perspective, he is the missing the point. Actually it was the Romans, centuries earlier than Calvin which did for us; they recognised that limited redistribution of wealthy would keep the poor grateful and their own coffers loaded. ‘Caritas” bought peace of mind and a pat on the head from the Gods. As for that nasty Mr Knox who did so much for Scots and Scots Americans, bottom line he was  bankrolled by Scottish landowners greedy for monastic land. Hence why social enterprise is so hated by people who like the charity comfort zone, it  refuses to be ever so ‘umble before its betters.    It is interesting to see how hampered 21stC Americans are by these old feudal constructs, but how in the UK our own closer relationship to the state explains why in so many ways social enterprise is ahead of the curve.  Whoever  makes up the next Government needs to be guarantor and facilitator to enable us to pay people properly, advertise and take risks and raise capital. I leave the Conference and meet friends who are in academia and they ask curiously whether social enterprise is a socialist idea? I tell them our movement is the nearest thing to the pioneers’ American Dream. We’ve just popped over Stateside  to reclaim the story.