The Sins of Our Fathers

A radical judgment on philanthropy does little to inspire or inform

The philanthropic industry now mirrors colonial structures and reproduces hierarchy, thereby doing more harm than good—or so argues Edgar Villanueva in his book Decolonizing Wealth. The celebrated author and foundation staffer urges philanthropists to follow his “Seven Steps of Healing,” of which the first is to grieve. “As a field, we can actually stop and acknowledge the source of this wealth and the pain that acquiring this wealth has caused.”


To be clear, Villanueva does not advise grantmakers to feel vaguely guilty about how the money was earned, nor to recall how luck may have played a role in its making. Nor does he want them to remember all the educators, laborers, customers, investors, or whoever might have helped make the money along the way, or to avoid the many temptations to arrogance that giving brings. As a former foundation official, I’d say all those thoughts would be good advice. But in Villanueva’s eyes, such niceties are worthless pablum. Instead he calls for recognition of philanthropy itself as “a sleepwalking sector, white zombies spewing the money of dead white people in the name of charity and benevolence.” Villanueva asserts that it is “colonialism in the empire’s newest clothes” and “racism in institutional form.”

One might wonder, given his views, how Villanueva remained in the philanthropic sector for so long. He has worked at the Kate Reynolds Charitable Trust and the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and currently is vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, as well as chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy. He estimates he has granted just under a million dollars a month since 2005. He writes that “Money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize,” but how does that ethic apply to everyday grantmaking?

Take the Andrus Family Fund, where Villanueva serves as a board member. The fund started as a project of the Surdna Foundation in 2000—the idea was to engage young members of the extended family of Surdna’s founder John Andrus. (Surdna is Andrus spelled backwards.) The son of a Methodist minister, Andrus was a conservative businessman, mayor of Yonkers, New York, and a Republican U.S. congressman. He was known as “the multimillionaire straphanger” because he used cheap public transportation. He had nine kids and died in 1934. So: in this framework, is Andrus the moral equivalent of a colonizer? And is that what you tell his progeny, who you want to become engaged philanthropists?

“White people have to grieve the guilt that accompanies whiteness,” declares Villanueva. “Settlers and their descendants have to grieve the lives of their ancestors, the culture that made their acts of domination and exploitation even imaginable, possible, and acceptable.”

The rest of Villanueva’s Seven Steps to Healing are to apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair. His less-radical chapters on listening and relating are quite good and offer humility-encouraging advice applicable to all donors, if they can see past the rest. His chapter on representing calls for “the white saviors” of funding groups “to give up their seats” and have “at least 50 percent of staff, 50 percent of advisors, [and] 50 percent of board members” with “intimate, authentic knowledge of the issues and communities involved.” The investing chapter calls for assets to be invested in ways that are “100 percent mission-aligned, meaning not just do-no-harm but invested in decolonization.” And finally, he calls for reparations. Specifically, a 10 percent tithe from every foundation in existence that would go toward a fund for Native American and African-American grantmaking. (He makes no comment on the vast numbers of good national and local nonprofits already engaged in these activities.)

In some ways this book is standard progressive fare. But I do see one possible benefit of its popularity: liberal and far-left philanthropy may be pressured to draft apologies. Conservative funders have long been subject to moral browbeating, but what if progressive foundations started to apologize for, say, their ugly participation in eugenics during Margaret Sanger’s salad days?

At book’s end, Villanueva movingly describes his mother—who began work every day at the Department of Motor Vehicles, then finished it with a shift as a caregiver at a nursing home or in someone’s private residence, and started a bus ministry to take kids (eventually hundreds of them) to church on Sundays. “She has spent her life caring for others, sharing resources, raising money for others, giving up her time,” he writes. “That is an actual philanthropist right there.” On that point, liberals and conservatives can agree. Her actions demonstrate true “love of humanity.”

Villanueva rightly observes that his mother’s understanding of giving stands in stark contrast to much of top-down and heavy-handed institutionalized philanthropy. But his prescription for healing rushes into radical judgmentalism about philanthropy and those involved in it—and leaves the argument in Decolonizing Wealth unsubstantiated and overstated.

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