GV alum gives philanthropy presentation


Presenter and GVSU alumni Allison Stephens Shook with a HFL program resident on a bus during a learning trip to Kigali. (Courtesy / Hope for Life)

Ysabela Golden, Staff Reporter

In the United States, white households hold approximately 83.9% of the nation’s wealth (though make up 76.3% of the population). As a natural result of this allotment, white Americans are deciding where the vast amount of philanthropic donations go. To explore what this means for American charity, on Nov. 16 the department of Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies hosted Allison Stephens Shook for her presentation “What White People Give: Observations in International Philanthropy.”

“Allison is a graduate of Grand Valley’s Honors College, where she spent a good portion of her senior year working in Ghana on the problem of the labor trafficking of children and their rehabilitation,” sociology professor Joseph Verschaeve said. “Following her graduation, she was accepted to the UofM school of social work, the highest-graded social work program in the United States.”

Since then, Shook has become the Development Director for Hope For Life, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to empowering Rwandan youth to escape homelessness.

“My job is fundraising,” Shook said. “Nonprofits and charities, they rely on the donated dollars of people like you and me. Bigger groups like corporations will sometimes make donations. A philanthropist is really anyone who makes donations or donates their time, but when we hear that word what we think of is more like the people who have their names on Grand Valley buildings.”

In the United States, philanthropy today was popularized during the 19th century, when a combination of weak government power and a swarm of newly rich industrialist businessmen led to many public services being funded as charity by millionaires. Men like George Peabody, Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller codified American philanthropy by creating permanent foundations that supported schools, libraries and hospitals.

“The industrial revolution really skyrocketed income inequality, and part of the way to quell the anger around that inequality was these men creating private foundations for philanthropy,” Shook said. “Carnegie and Rockefeller did a lot of philanthropy, but they both had extremely questionable business practices. American wealth is built on stealing resources, all the way back to colonization. The question becomes, can we ask people for money knowing that the way they got it isn’t ethically sound?”

Ethical concerns about wealthy donors aren’t just about keeping a clean conscience.

“Most philanthropists want to help, but at the end of the day they’re not going to touch the underlying system of inequality, because that’s what gives them power,” Shook said. “It’s this never-ending cycle of wealth being created in maybe questionable ways, and then redistributed as the wealthy see fit. Inequality might be bad for society, but it’s good for private philanthropy. And as a result, those people gain a significant influence over society. For example, Bill Gates is not in Congress. He’s not an elected official. But the influence of the Gates Foundation over public issues is very great.”

According to Shook, this expectation of donor control is very prevalent in her personal work at Hope For Life.

“We have had donors say things like, I don’t want to give to Hope For Life unless there’s an American— and they usually mean white American— leading the work in the field in Rwanda,” Shook said. “We’ve done deep dives on how our programs are being executed and learned a lot about trauma and deep care, and we make changes. And sometimes donors will disagree with these changes and stop their giving because they don’t feel it’s being executed in a Christian enough way, in a western enough way.”

Hope For Life started as a faith-based nonprofit, but over the years has stopped using Evangelical Christian language when talking to donors.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re against it, it’s just being very conscious of how we talk about our work, how it is delivered, and the people that we serve,” Shook said. “The programs in Rwanda are developed and executed by our colleagues there. Faith is really important to Rwandans, so there are elements of spirituality and faith in how those programs are delivered. That is culturally appropriate, and how they decided to do that. But that is of no decision to us in the United States.”

In 2020, the largest percentage of charitable dollars (28%) went to religious organizations. Shook notes that the majority of Hope For Life’s donors are from a white Evangelical Christian background.

“When you go into this work, you’re doing it because you want to make a change in this world,” Shook said. “You have issues you’re passionate about. But then you run up against the industrial complex. The unique position of being a fundraiser is that you are this bridge between the people who have resources and the people who don’t. I like to think of myself as working on behalf of the people who don’t. But as a fundraiser, we are often pulled to the other side, in order to get those resources for the people we’re trying to serve.”

The “nonprofit industrial complex” is how social justice advocates describe the cyclical connection between charities, businesses and the government and their top-down approach to inequity, which imposes the agenda of the “haves” on the very programs that are supposed to uplift the “have-nots.”

“The nonprofit sector has applied itself to common business models, even though we’re not doing the same sort of work, and as a result aren’t really solving the problems we set out too,” Shook said. “Ideally, we should be putting ourselves out of a job, but that’s not how it works. There are donor-advised funds that allow philanthropists to put their money in a foundation, collect their tax breaks, and then the foundation legally only has to pay out 5%. Really, at the end of the day, philanthropy is not a replacement for necessary government programs. The rich are getting tax breaks to allocate wealth wherever they want, rather than their tax dollars being properly advocated to address different issues,”

As troubling as this is, Shook does see hope on the horizon.

“There’s this movement right now called community-centric fundraising,” Shook said. “Traditionally, philanthropy is donor-centric, making the donor the hero. ‘Only you can help these people, without you they will continue to suffer.’ A lot of organizations lean into that, and it’s not always ethical. This movement is to put the community at the center as the narrative’s heroes, to show that this is a partnership with them. It means talking about why the issues facing them even exist in the first place, which means talking about racism and colonization with our donors. And sometimes that’s uncomfortable. But we’re not going to tackle inequity and injustice by making our donors comfortable.”

If you’d like to learn more about Hope For Life, you can visit their website at hopeforlife.us, email them at [email protected], or find them on Facebook under @hopeforliferwanda.