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Credit: Alana Kelly

Penn has declared this upcoming academic year as the year of civic engagement, emphasizing a commitment to our surrounding communities, like West Philadelphia, and the rest of the world. Almost 200 organizations listed on Penn Clubs fall under the umbrella of community service; with such a prevalent culture surrounding civic engagement and specifically community service, it is very easy to want to participate in as many projects and initiatives as possible. I encourage you, of course, to tackle issues you care about and enjoy your volunteering experiences. However, over my time at Penn, I have discovered that much of Penn’s philanthropic culture, whether due to bad faith or inefficacy, is not what it initially seems.

The first disheartening trend in many of Penn’s philanthropic ventures is the overabundance of corporate influence. Much of the actions taken by these corporations are to protect their bottom line and are often used to mask the damage that they do in these fields. For example, this past spring, Wharton helped found NinetyToZero, an initiative aiming to close the racial wealth gap in America. Wharton has partnered with countless corporations including McKinsey & Company, Starbucks, and Goldman Sachs, claiming they are committed to closing the racial wealth gap. Yet, their business actions prove this could not be further from the truth.

McKinsey has been cited for increased violence in New York City jails, whose inmate population is disproportionately Black, as well as for its role in the opioid epidemic. Starbucks has been accused of contributing to the gentrification of low-income Black neighborhoods and, despite attempts to improve racial bias training, their workers go viral for transgressions against Black customers and employees. Goldman Sachs profited off of low- and middle-income families during the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008, hurting Black borrowers the most.

At the end of the day, these corporations only intend to protect their bottom line, and their philanthropic ventures are just ways to cleanse or mask their reputations.

Even if philanthropic ventures are well-intentioned, they can still be quite ineffective. The reason is that charities often only exist to address the failures of the government to regulate corporations and provide an adequate social safety net. As a result, charity has historically not been able to solve systemic issues. During the Progressive Era, private charity did not have the breadth or depth necessary to address skyrocketing wealth inequality. Instead, antitrust laws, establishing a minimum wage, and corporate regulation lifted many Americans out of poverty. The historic inefficacy of charity is usually due to their inefficient allocations of funds or their inability to support a large enough portion of the population. Private philanthropic work often does not have the means to fully address systemic issues, and thus cannot go without political organizing and demanding action from the government to amend those systemic failures.

The need for systemic change as opposed to private philanthropy is evident in many of the most popular forms of community service in which Penn students choose to participate. There are countless medical charities that provide various forms of healthcare to underserved Americans, but those charities only need to exist because the cost of healthcare and drugs in the U.S. are so high. There are many food banks and soup kitchens tackling hunger, but these are only temporary solutions to the broader issue of the current increasing wealth gap. There are plenty of mentorship and tutoring programs in West Philadelphia. However, again, the lack of quality of schools in West Philadelphia is directly correlated to Penn’s exemption from property taxes and a lack of investment from the local Philadelphia government.

There are a lot of charities out there, and I am not discouraging you from wanting to serve your community. However, especially at Penn, many philanthropic ventures are ineffective or more interested in protecting reputations. Due to its lack of scope, charity can only alleviate the symptoms of, but cannot solve, systemic issues. In addition, corporations involved in many philanthropic ventures uphold or exacerbate existing systemic problems, and their charitable deeds make it seem as if they are solving them. 

People donate large sums of money to charity and trust their money is going towards solving the problems charities claim to remedy. So this year, when you’re attending civic engagement programming or deciding which community service organizations to join, ask organizations about their corporate influences, how they are measuring their efficacy, and how they are trying to get to the root of the systemic issues they are addressing. Ultimately, scrutinizing how we serve our community and address systemic issues is how we can all do the most good. 

MATTHEW LIU is a College junior from Allentown, Pa. studying biochemistry, chemistry, and neurobiology. His email is liumatt@sas.upenn.edu.

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