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The Power of Giving: Investigating the Shape of Private Philanthropy, a California Case Study

Abstract

This paper concerns the relationship between private philanthropy and social movements. At a time when the unions, social service and legal aide agencies, and other structures that supported social movements of the past are suffering declining resources and public legitimacy or are failing to move with the needs of the new working poor, privately funded non-profit organizations have become the primary vehicle for organizing poor and marginalized communities. Relatively few scholars have investigated the opportunities and consequences of the new model of philanthropic organizing. Drawing on post-Marxist Gramscian theory, studies in governmentality, and feminist materialism this paper outlines a theoretical framework and research agenda for investigating large philanthropic initiatives. It is proposed that California’s Central Valley, a place sharply defined by the production of poverty through industrial agriculture, provides a useful lens for looking at how philanthropic initiatives reorganize and depoliticize the work of groups originally founded to address issues such as unfair labor practices, pesticide waste, and other abuses by large-scale farmers. It is argued, based on preliminary research1, that private foundations manage the work of granted organizations through program frameworks that put poor people at the center of their own salvation while excluding reference to the power structures and economic relationships that created the situations they seek to ameliorate. Ultimately, this project is concerned with what the rise of largescale private philanthropic initiatives has to do with the current moment in which political, social, and economic agendas are overwhelmingly dominated by alliances of global capital.

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