“Philanthropy and the Starfish Dilemma” – Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy’s new blog now available!

Emma Beeston (of the Emma Beeston Consultancy) and Saran Taragon and Stephen Woollett of Clarity CIC regularly provide blogs on their websites and kindly give us permission to reproduce. These  are always thoughtful, sometimes challenging articles composed by people who have great experience of working in and with the not-for-profit sector. Today’s blog, which considers how philanthropists and funders should respond to the cost-of-living crisis, has been written by Emma Beeston, and is entitled:

“Philanthropy and the Starfish Dilemma”

“The tale of the starfish is a story used to illustrate one of the choices philanthropists have to consider.

“It goes like this: someone is walking on a beach and notices lots of starfish have been washed-up and are dying on the sand. They start picking them up and returning them to the sea. A second person comes along and tells them that there are so many starfish that their endeavours don’t matter. The first person picks up a starfish and says “it matters to this one”. This conveys the idea that every philanthropic act counts, no matter how small.

“An alternative version is that the second person intervenes, not by helping rescue individual starfish, but (again having pointed out the first person’s approach is pointless) goes off to find the cause of the tragic incident to stop it at the root. On the one hand we have providing immediate assistance to those in need and on the other is addressing the root causes of a problem. I have heard this told with different gender stereotypes: the heart-led woman making a futile gesture whilst the clever man sees the big picture; or a sensible woman finding out what’s going on versus a man focused on a task.

“I have three problems with using this starfish dilemma to talk about philanthropy:

“First of all, it suggests that there is one right way that is the best thing to do – whether this is addressing symptoms or tackling underlying causes. In my view, there is space for many philanthropic approaches and this plurality is a strength. In all situations, taking one either/or approach is limited. Not only are there multiple ways to be philanthropic, there is also room to combine multiple approaches into one strategy.

“Secondly, it reinforces the idea of a lone saviour. The individual is the focus – the pressure is on them to decide what to do for the best. Surely you could gather forces on the beach? You would bring a crowd to help the starfish and form an action group to raise awareness of the issue and lobby for change to prevent this happening again. Philanthropy is amplified by collaboration and collective action.

“Lastly, the starfish are passive players in this scenario. This may work as an analogy for addressing environmental issues, but it does not apply where those being helped have agency. The human recipients of generosity are not just waiting to be helped. Like the starfish with their amazing ability to regenerate limbs, those needing help should not be underestimated. They can be consulted, involved and advocate for themselves.

“Although the starfish tale is visually evocative and raises one interesting question, how might it be re-worked and used to illustrate the value of philanthropy’s plurality, collective action and with a central role for the starfish?”

Image: Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy. Emma advises grant-makers, companies and families on creating and implementing giving strategies.  For enquiries or to book a free 30-minute consultation, contact Emma at:
Email: emma@emmabeeston.co.uk
Tel: +44 (0)7810 543737
Twitter: @emmabeeston
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/emmabeeston/