Silicon Valley’s wealthy denizens are among the country’s leading philanthropists. And they have distinctive philanthropic preferences, favoring “metrics-driven” philanthropy that ensures philanthropists achieve the greatest benefit possible for each philanthropic dollar.

Sounds great—who doesn’t want the greatest benefit? To have made things better—maybe even “all better”?

The desire to make things “all better” has driven many recent philanthropic successes, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations’ impressive work to bring the world within striking distance of eradicating polio.

But, alas, as we all know, sometimes things cannot be made “all better.”

The Washington Post reports on how the drive of Silicon Valley philanthropists to focus their philanthropic dollars on problems that can be made “all better” has led them to sit out the current crisis of Syrian migrants:

“The private sector is allergic to conflict,” scoffed a senior official at one international aid group, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “They’re happy to help after a natural disaster, because they know things will improve. But in a conflict emergency, we don’t know what will happen, and they don’t want to be held responsible.”

In short, the philanthropic community that rallied so impressively to respond to the Haitian earthquake, and to other natural disasters at home and abroad, is not moved to do in the current crisis because there’s no clear path to a permanent solution. After an earthquake or tsunami, it’s easy to picture an end goal: a rebuilt community so that life can go on as before (or maybe even better than before). For metrics-driven philanthropists, this is a project that can be planned and managed, with milestones that can be celebrated on the way to achieving the end goal.

In a crisis like the Syrian migrant crisis, it’s impossible to picture today how—or when—that crisis may be relieved. There’s no clear end goal—and so no milestones on the way, no metrics to measure progress against, and no way of saying when things will be “all better.”

Now, philanthropy is a deeply personal activity, and generally no one should be judged for contributing, or not contributing, to one or another cause.

But the disposition to contribute only when it’s clearly possible to improve people’s welfare permanently means rejecting the charitable impulse to relieve the burdens of hunger and cold, and burdens of worry and grief, even if only temporarily.

Recognizing that some problems cannot be solved—or at least not by us, or right now—requires a certain modesty about our capacities. And that recognition of our limited capacity to solve problems can inspire compassion for, and charity toward, those suffering from circumstances we cannot simply solve or make go away.

Silicon Valley’s residents are used to achieving results, and they’re not noted for their modesty. And, while one shouldn’t criticize anyone for contributing or not contributing to any particular cause, one might wonder if it isn’t hubris about their technological ability to make things “all better” in many circumstances that is, at bottom, behind why Silicon Valley philanthropists seem to be, by and large, sitting out the Syrian migrant crisis.

 


Photo credit: Oxfam Italia on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND