Communal Money

Amy Schiller discusses the limits of “scientific philanthropy,” and how money can be a tool toward collective power-sharing.

A mutual aid operation in Minneapolis near the 3rd precinct in late May. Photo: @bethcath_ via Twitter

Countless people have watched the acute crises of the past few months and asked themselves, “Where do I donate?” But how do you determine where your money goes? I’ve been asking myself that question and coming up short. Because discussions of money remain taboo—among the rich and between the rich and everyone else—there simply aren’t great resources for approaching the question of how to give. Any financial advisor will tell you how to maximize the tax advantages of donations, but precious few can advise you on the pursuit of radical change. I’ve been lucky to have had access to a substantial amount of money throughout my life, and I was taught to give to charity and those in need, but figuring out the specifics of giving is always a source of anxiety. Yet, there’s never been a more urgent time to figure out what I—as a person of means, as an American, even as a Jew—can and should give.

In my quest to become a better giver, I turned to Amy Schiller. Schiller is an incoming postdoctoral fellow with the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth, and is writing a book based on her academic research at CUNY Graduate Center on how philanthropy can help foster solidarity and connection to a common world. In her writing for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere, she has interrogated the ethics and praxis of philanthropy. As a Jew and a leftist, she has brought ideas from both traditions into play as she looks at how donations of money and other resources can be meaningful and transformative. Recently, Schiller and I discussed how to think about giving in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Abraham Riesman: What do you wish people, especially Jews who identify or sympathize with the left, understood better about donating money?

Amy Schiller: We have a very financialized way of engaging in civil society. We’re in this condition as neoliberal subjects, and also, differently, as Jews, where we turn to philanthropic giving. Our community has a particularly strong culture of giving, and that has worked out really well in some ways. But our philanthropic giving should be only part of the strategy. Everyone has seen, especially with the pandemic, how inadequate the current nonprofit structure is to meet the scale of the problems on everything from economic insecurity to systemic racism. 

AR: How has this tradition of giving worked out well for the American Jewish community in the past?

AS: We have this training in giving: You put the money in the tin, you give to Jewish Federations. You give money in people’s honor when they reach a particular milestone. And that’s a really great and beautiful thing! It has enabled the building of a Jewish establishment that—whatever we want to say about its role now—has secured the well-being of many Jewish people through vital social services, like old age homes. 

But, again, we are seeing the limits in terms of the scope of what it can accomplish. There is efficacy in throwing money at problems like systemic racism and overreliance on police and incarceration, but it’s not going to be voluntary donations of money, per se. It’s going to be public money, in things like funding reparations. That’s the story of defunding the police: It’s so you can fund health and human services. I don’t want to say that money is not going to fix it. Money will fix it, but money on a scale that’s way beyond what any of us can Venmo to a nonprofit.

As Jews, there are different ways that we’ve been able to access capital that are going to be much harder to undo in society. Some of the ways that we’ve accumulated wealth are in the value of the real estate that white or white-passing Jews have been able to purchase, as compared to Black people and other minority populations. Some of what redistributing wealth might mean is using our community’s perceived legitimacy and the quality of public goods—schools, for instance—that it’s been able to buy us, in order to make change.

AR: My grandfather got very rich selling Christmas tree lights to gentiles. Classic Jewish story. I’m very lucky that it wasn’t blood money, as far as I know.

AS: Just the blood of the trees, Abraham.

AR: True. So, I have this chunk of change that I’ve almost never dipped into. It’s sort of sitting there, frightening me. On the one hand, I should probably just give it all away. And on the other hand, it’s a scary world, and even this amount of money may not save me and my partner, so I feel I should hold on to it for as long as I can. I’m not trying to put you in the position of psychoanalyst, but . . .

AS: I kind of want to be. I think people’s relationship with money is always about so much more than the balance sheet. It’s the crucible for everything about your sense of security or value, your anxieties, how you build relationships. There are so many psychological and emotional dynamics in our relationship to money. And we so often pretend that thinking about money is this strictly cerebral, analytical exercise. 

AR: I have flirted with the organization Resource Generation, which brings together young people with resources so they can understand and combat inequality. When I asked somebody from Resource Generation about evaluating impact, about “due diligence,” her response was, “Our philosophy is that the giving is unconditional. If somebody is in need, we help.” That made me nervous. But I know there are problems with going to the other extreme, doing what you’ve referred to in your writing as “scientific philanthropy,” where the philanthropist thinks their donations are purely rational and should be handled like financial instruments. How do you find a happy medium between those two poles?

AS: When you say you felt nervous—what, to you, is the worst-case scenario there?

AR: I guess the worst-case scenario is somebody who is not in need is running a scam.

AS: I get why that would be a concern. There’s an issue here of trust. When you get institutional funding from big foundations, they try to solve for that with an emphasis on quantifiable results. I would err more on the side of the idea that if you want to trust the efficacy of your donations, then you should keep them to organizations and communities where you’re in relationship with those people—where you don’t need the recipients to somehow re-prove and re-demonstrate and re-earn your trust because you’re already involved in community-building with them. You might want to focus on a local group where you consider yourself a member and a volunteer. What worries me about the language of “due diligence” is that it presumes a kind of power and trustworthiness and agency on the part of the donor that it doesn’t necessarily afford to the recipient. That’s a power dynamic that I would like to see disrupted. 

I’m gonna tell you a story I heard recently about a family who owned land that used to be a plantation.

AR: Oof.

AS: They were concerned with this question: How do you dismantle the plantation and use it to serve Black people? The initial thought was, “Do we just sell the land and give away the money?” And, for various reasons, that wasn’t going to be the most fiscally effective way of making a material difference in the lives of local Black people who they were trying to support. So they wondered whether they should just deed the land over to them for farming. But actually, if the farmers were the property owners, they’d have to pay these enormous property taxes, which would be too much of a burden on them and wouldn’t yield a net good.

So the family ended up continuing to be the deed holders, but they lease out the land at a below-market rate so Black farmers can live and pursue their livelihood there without shouldering the tax burden. All the financial benefit and agency is there, even though the owners have to sit with the weirdness of still owning this plantation, and still being landlords. 

Again, the question is: What actually gets more money into the hands of the people who need it, without centering my own comfort? It’s about being in partnership, and engaged in a project over the very long haul.

AR: I’m glad you told this story, because it gets at the necessary discomfort. We often treat donations like Catholic indulgences: “If I do this, then I’ll feel better because my soul has been saved.” But giving shouldn’t necessarily make you feel better. 

AS: Yeah. The ethical quotient is not in who to give it to, it’s in how much you’ve de-centered your own satisfaction and centered an efficacy in somebody else’s life. And sometimes that means de-centering your need to feel reassured that your dollars made this specific, concrete impact and instead making it about resources being returned to the control of other people.

AR: What do you mean by “returned”?

AS: Look, there are many ways in which white people benefit from compound interest or real estate value. The GI Bill benefitted many of our Jewish American grandparents, but not a lot of Black people. You can go on and on about the injustices from which we have benefitted. So maybe the important thing is to relinquish [that accumulated wealth] to others. Really and truly give it as a gift that doesn’t require a return, or a transactional benefit. To say: “Because I believe myself to be in partnership and solidarity, it’s no longer my money. It’s no longer money that I’m tracking and asking for reports on. This is now communal money that I, as one of many members of this community, am donating for collective liberation.”

AR: I think there is something built into the Jewish emotional landscape where money is your best shot at not getting killed. Whether it’s reasonable or not in 2020, it’s still very much there. And I’ll confess that, for me, it’s a big thing. I feel like, “Well, if I get rid of my money, then I’m going to lose my body armor.” 

AS: That resonates with me a great deal. One consequence of being neoliberal subjects is that it’s every person for themselves. We have no concept of basic material security as a human right or as a right of citizenship. We have no model anymore for what it would mean to have a decent life without being capitalized—meaning, without having substantial lump sums available for, say, down payments on real estate or college tuition. It depends on our individual resources.

Historically, many Jews have an additional attachment to money because it’s like: “We were able to get out of Poland because we bribed the guard or because we could afford the false papers or we shoved the diamonds up our butts.” Of course, that’s no myth—it’s literally how many people who survived did it. But, again, it reinforces a model where we have no conception of being secure in the world beyond what we, ourselves, possess. 

One of the more interesting things about the pandemic and this protest moment is that mutual-aid societies are becoming increasingly popular as a way of buying and delivering groceries for people who can’t go out. And communities without surplus financial resources are exchanging contributions to take care of each other, like taking care of each other’s kids, for example. It’s this communal method of guaranteeing each other’s security and well-being. I find that encouraging, because that is how we should be thinking: What are our collective resources?

AR: And being part of a mutual-aid society is a fantastic way to actually meet your neighbors and become an active part of your geographic community. 

AS: Right. There’s a way of approaching giving where you’re like, “I’m the donor, I have the money, and the money’s the key thing here, so I want to be a discerning consumer. I want to be an informed investor.” And that’s when you really get into the idea of vetting. But when you start from a place of relationship and the money is among the things that you contribute within that network of relationship—that’s really the key to it being ethical. It’s not where you give it, necessarily, or if where you give it is doing the most good by whatever metric. It’s not a score sheet. It’s more like: How did you show up as a person who’s providing money as one of your contributions? Because the thing we’re really learning from this moment is that we need more collective sharing of power. So the question is: What are the ways that your giving enacts that sharing of power?

Abraham Josephine Riesman is the author of Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America and True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. She is a freelance journalist and a board member of Jewish Currents.