Passover's 10 Plagues and Philanthropy

Just in time for Passover what are the 10 plagues of Philanthropy?

Passover, the Jewish holiday welcoming in the spring, remembering the freedom from slavery in Egypt and reflecting on the role that individuals and families play in society is also the holiday of asking questions. Children are encouraged to think critically of the story of Exodus, adults come prepared with topics for discussion of current events as it pertains to culture, ethics, politics and humanity and debates become an “around the table” all night affair. So I thought it fitting that we question the relationship between the 10 Plagues that God brought down on Pharaoh at the behest of Moses to create an escape route for the Israelites and how those plagues can be reflected in today’s philanthropic climate.

  1. Water turning to blood - How does water turning to blood relate to philanthropy? Too often funders have expectations of recipients that they will be able to solve really complex problems without adequate resources. When the water turned to blood, the Hebrew slaves were still expected to make mortar for the bricks to build the pyramids. The same thing happens with charities, funders still expect them to solve complex problems without adequate resourcing thereby creating a paradox of quality program delivery, high impact solutions at low cost. The Pharaoh's expectation of quality of mortar did not take into account the lack of water.

  2. Frogs - What is it about frogs that we can apply to the philanthropy conversation? Frogs are a bellwether for change in climate and the ecosystem. A strategic philanthropist knows which organizations and issues act as bellwethers for key issues and solution designs. If we don’t listen to those organizations we miss the cues on how best to solve the problems. Pharaoh chose not to listen the frogs’ cues and as a result led to another plague - Lice and Vermin.

  3. Lice/Vermin - What do disease carrying insects have to do with philanthropy? Think back to the 80’s and 90’s when celebrities would be on your TV promoting their cause-du-jour, usually in some African country with flies buzzing around the eyes of children with distended bellies. Flies on Eyes poverty reduction is what we call it. Organizations that play to your limbic system - the emotional centre of your brain. Without much context you are compelled to think about poverty “over there,” without considering the impacts of this type of international aide, the system in which those organizations operate and the ripple effect of those contributions.

  4. Wild Animals - What do wild beasts have to do with philanthropy? Have you responded to things out of fear? Some organizations use fear as their way of soliciting a donation, but it is also means that once that fear is subsided the relationship between the donor and the charity is shallow and limited in growth. The Wild Beasts in the 10 plagues represent this fear. If you know that you will be attacked you won’t go outside. The same is said for charities that play on this emotion… if you don’t support our cause who will support you when you need our services most? It’s giving as an insurance policy (which may be strategic depending on your belief system).

  5. Livestock sickness - What does this have to do with philanthropy? Everything is connected. The way that disease spreads from one herd to the next is transmitted from a single source to the entire group. The one-to-many factor is also an important concept in strategic philanthropy. Leveraging relationships is a key component to creating impact. This could start as a single donation to a single charity, but by encouraging others to get involved or by virtue you of you making “leveraging” a component to your giving strategy you are increasing the opportunities for greater impact. Of course, it’s not just about the act of giving away or volunteering time; this spread can be seen in how the assets are managed within a foundation. For example you might choose to allocate 10% of your foundation’s asset base to an aligned business or fund, this pairing of asset allocation with giving strategy amplifies your philanthropic objectives.

  6. Boils/Sickness - What does human disease have to do with philanthropy? When reflecting on this plague I remembered the story about the Gates Foundation making mosquito nets available for free across the African continent through hospitals for pregnant women and newborns. The unintended consequence of this was that shop owners were disincentivized to sell nets which meant that whole demographics (men and older children) were not able to access the nets because manufacturers only provided them for the hospitals to distribute to women and babies and the individual shop owners could not make a profit on selling what is available for free through the healthcare system (albeit on a limited scale). When considering supporting complex problems unintended consequences will occur. The upside to this story is that there was a marked decrease in malaria in children and pregnant women. As philanthropists we have to decide is the impact on the many more valued than the impact on the few (in either case, that impact can be negative or positive).

  7. Hail/Climate Change -What does the environment have to do with philanthropy? This is a difficult topic for a single blog post. Suffice it to say, climate change and social justice are directly linked. Impacting poverty rates, violence against women, migration patterns of people, demands on potable water, the spreading of disease, and a host of other issues, climate has become more than just a conversation about the environment, it is one that ties into most poverty reduction and international aid programs.

  8. Locusts - What do swarms of insects have to do with philanthropy? These insects get a bad rap. High in protein and consumed by large numbers of people around the world (in fact I had chocolate covered grasshoppers in Mexico that were quite good). When considering the swarm of locusts I think about duplication of services and organizations in the charitable sector. Duplication does not just mean that organizations are doing the same thing. If there are three organizations all providing mental health services and they are at capacity, they are not duplicating things - they are meeting demand. If however, those organizations were not at capacity then the argument could be made that there is duplication. When thinking about which of the multitude of organizations that support a single issue consider not only the program that is being delivered, but how this organization fits into the sandbox in which they operate. With over 90,000 charities in Canada and 1.6Million (excluding churches) in the US, an organization that says that they are the only ones providing this service is highly unlikely. So ask the question, what makes you different? A strong organization will be able to clearly articulate what makes them different from their competition.

  9. Darkness - What does this have to do with philanthropy? Think about “Willful Blindness” - what we choose to see and what we choose to ignore. Philanthropy in its truest definition means “Love of Mankind” yet how often do we choose to ignore the very evidence that is in front of us to justify our own set of beliefs. It’s human nature. While ignorance might be bliss in the short-term, the long-term implications of this attitude can be felt across generations.  Strategic philanthropy encourages donors to remove the blinders and see all the possibilities, even if it means that it takes you out of your comfort zone and confront different views.

  10. Death of the first born - What does this have to do with philanthropy? This last plague has so much to teach us - about our legacy, about transfering values and modeling behaviour for our children, and about what happens if we choose not to act. It took this last plague for Pharoah to let the Israelites go. How we choose to live our lives, the ripple effect that we have on our family, our community and beyond goes further than what we might see and experience in the immediate space and time. So for this plague, the death of Pharoah’s son should remind us that we all have a role to play in how we shape our world. We can choose to not act and live with the results of our inaction, or we can step up and step forward. That is what meaningful philanthropy is about.


While Passover may not be your thing, and religious symbolism may not resonate with you, what I like about the Passover experience is that it isn’t just about God and Judaism, it is a holiday that forces a conversation around social justice and the role we choose to be present in.

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