The XX Factor

Madonna’s Charitable Implosion

A year ago, Madonna reported that she had, with tremendous joy, returned to Malawi to “lay the first brick” in the Raising Malawi School for Girls . Yesterday, in an email to supporters of that school quoted in the New York Times , Madonna’s fellow Raising Malawi founder Michael Berg said that a “thoughtful decision” had been made to “discontinue plans” for the school “as it was originally conceived.” That thoughtful decision came after the organization was found to have spent $3.8 million without ever gaining title to the land for the school or breaking ground. The Global Philanthropy Group, which Madonna brought into the process late last year, not only found that little had been done to advance the project, but apparently urged Madonna to abandon it entirely. According to the Times, Trevor Neilson, the Group’s founder, told Madonna that “building an expensive school in Malawi was an ineffective form of philanthropy, and suggested instead using resources to finance education programs through existing and proven nongovernmental organizations.”

Tell that to Oprah Winfrey .

Winfrey has taken plenty of heat for her decision to build a luxurious $40 million school for a relatively small number of girls instead of distributing that money equitably for education across South Africa. But she-like Madonna-has earned the right to put her charitable dollars and instincts however she sees best, and her choice to do everything for a few children rather than a little for many is a fair one (and not that different from the choice made by adoptive parents, who choose to use their resources on raising one child rather than contributing to the raising of many, or indeed every parent who effectively makes the same choice). Madonna has two adopted children from Malawi, and has traveled there and invested not just her money but her time, interest and (I imagine) her heart in that country’s fortunes. If a school there is her dream, then she should regroup and rebuild. Oprah, too, had to learn the lesson that to make her school the place she’d imagined, she had to be consistently personally involved.

Philanthropists all over the world have long known that you cannot just throw money at a charitable endeavor, you have to throw your passion at it as well. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, but $3.8 million never has. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see Madonna roll up her sleeves and make change happen by applying her considerable force of personality and will to a school rather than another movie or record album? She has more than just money to throw at Malawi, and what she really has isn’t best used by NGOs and “education programs.” She has herself, and I hope she’ll take a deep breath (and maybe give Oprah a call) and try again.