It’s time to talk differently – and more carefully – about philanthropy
A new book on philanthropy is always cause for celebration. The serious study of philanthropy is still in its infancy in the UK and we need much fuller bookshelves to spark informed conversations about the role, purpose and consequences of private giving in contemporary society. Paul Vallely’s new book is a substantial addition to our growing store of knowledge in both senses of the words – it’s over 750 pages long and extremely comprehensive in scope as the subtitle makes clear, ranging from Aristotle to Zuckerberg and almost every conceivable topic and issue inbetween.
I was happy to provide an endorsement for the book jacket and stand by my view that Paul’s work is a service to all of us who are involved in this fascinating sector, whether as donors, grant-makers, fundraisers, charity leaders or scholars. But I am troubled by popular reactions to the extract published in The Guardian under the click-bait headline ‘How philanthropy benefits the super-rich’, and I think we need to carefully consider the consequences of stirring the populist pot about philanthropy at a time when we clearly need more, not less giving. The article was widely read and shared on social media, and I could not find a single example where this involved someone offering a ‘push back’ to the suggestion in the headline that philanthropy is inherently problematic. Instead, the Twitterati highlighted the juiciest quotes that depict philanthropists as power-hungry elites and tax-dodging plutocrats, offering commentary such as:
@OliPerkins2 – “I am so glad I don’t work in this horrific business anymore. This article hits the nail on the head.”
@joti2gaza – “The myth that charity = good has to end”
@hugetinymistake – “Philanthropy is a racket; just tax the rich”
@SelenesMuse – “stop letting the rich feed their egos pretending to [give]”
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot because I’m currently writing a book called ‘In Defence of Philanthropy’. Making the argument that philanthropy is not always problematic, and that donors are not always power-hungry egotists (or to phrase it the other way round: that philanthropy can be worth celebrating and that some donors give humbly and well) is not a sensible strategy for anyone who cares about book sales and social media approval.
But I am driven by three concerns:
(1) the lack of nuance in how people talk about philanthropy, implying donors are homogenous and unvarying in their motivation, practices and impacts;
(2) the tone of generalised cynicism in public discourse about philanthropists which assumes giving is a self-promoting ruse that requires debunking by sophisticated realists; and
(3) a belief that donor-bashing hurts those who benefit from the kindness of strangers (which actually includes pretty much all of us) far more than it affects the donors themselves.
Here’s a very brief overview of why these concerns matter:
Critics – especially the knee-jerk kind found on social media, rather than thoughtful scholarly critique – vastly underestimate the complex reality of contemporary philanthropy. Typical misconceptions they repeat and reinforce include the suggestion that philanthropy is the preserve of the rich, when in fact the collective value of mass giving far outweighs the combined sum provided by famous ‘mega-givers’; the assumption that the primary goal of philanthropy is to help the poor and tackle inequality, when in fact philanthropy operates on a much broader canvas and there is no historical precedent or legal obligation for all philanthropy to be redistributive; and the belief that American concerns about over-dominant big giving are universal when for the rest of the world the opposite problem looms far larger – there is not enough philanthropy which results in a chronically under-funded and subsequently underpowered non-profit sector. So discussions need to start from a recognition of the complexity and variety inherent in philanthropy as it exists across the world and within each society, rather than taking aim at a single unrepresentative idea of ‘philanthropy’.
Why does generalised cynicism affect anyone other than philanthropists, who – one might say – surely have enough money and privilege to grow a thicker skin? Because charities cannot run on goodwill alone: they need income, including private donations, to do their work and serve their beneficiaries. That work includes producing public goods that benefit us all, like medical research and a cleaner environment – clearly we need all hands on deck to find a vaccine against COVID-19 and to tackle the climate crisis. Charities also respond to quotidian needs that are not met by the state or market (such as hospice care or re-homing unwanted pets) and needs that are better met by a voluntary response (such as running helplines and supporting the bereaved). Charities also exist to make life better in myriad ways, for example by running village halls, Scout groups, amateur sports, arts and music organisations. All these charities need income, and fundraising is not easy at the best of times. Most charities already existed in a fragile state, lacking secure, sustainable funding long before the pandemic dented their ability to raise funds whilst simultaneously often increasing demand for their services. The fundraising ‘ask’ relies on the belief that gifts can make a meaningful difference, that ‘being philanthropic’ is appreciated and valued by wider society, and that the donor will feel good about doing good. Generalised attacks on philanthropy and insistence that donors should be critiqued and never cheered, undermine drivers of both philanthropic asking and giving. Those seeking funding for good causes have little else to give supporters other than thanks and praise. UK charity law forbids any substantive benefits for donors, including interference in the political process, so fundraisers rely largely on the power of intangible motivations, such as cultivating the ‘warm glow’ and ‘helpers high’ that drives much other-oriented behaviour.
No one has to give away any amount of post-tax income: it could all be kept for private consumption or to exacerbate inequality by passing it on to children. Private jet owners and spoilt heirs may be less socially valuable than philanthropic efforts but they are far less likely to provoke public passions or reams of acerbic comment on social media. Anger and sarcasm directed at donors might feel cathartic but it often turns out to be friendly fire that hits fundraisers, and the collateral damage to broader civil society is felt by us all. But shouldn’t we “speak truth to power” even if we end up paying the price in decreased donations? Only if those words are appropriate. Despite all the armchair philosophising about“ true” donor motivations, the research shows that donors typically give because they want to help make something good happen, and are often far less interested in being praised or seeing their name up in lights than is commonly assumed. But donors have not signed up to become public scapegoats for everything that people feel is wrong about how society is currently organised (and about which donors may be equally concerned) such as growing inequality, the need to reform taxation, inadequate public spending, the need for better pay and protection for workers, civic disengagement or simply how irritating famous rich people are.
Whilst the connection between possessing wealth and having power is obvious, the suggestion that using some of that money for public benefit necessarily aggravates the situation is an unhelpful generalisation. Philanthropy comes in a huge variety of forms, of which policy-oriented philanthropy is only one niche interest, which might be better to lose its tax-exempt status rather than tar all philanthropy with the same brush. There has been a slippage from noting that in some instances philanthropy can be a way of wielding power, to the statement that ‘all philanthropy is power’ which is at best an odd exaggeration given how much philanthropic funding is spent on mundane and prosaic goods and services (such as the examples of fundraising charities given above). Given the reality that some people do åinherit or create vast wealth, what would those critics prefer happens next? If they are in favour of confiscating it, they should make that case. Otherwise their stance risks looking like mere grandstanding – calling out big donors in order to publicise their own ‘keener’ moral sense. Unless the critic is demonstrably personally committed to radically re- structuring the economy and society, their public handwringing about philanthropy is more about securing public recognition as a moral person. Twitter users enjoy highlighting what they see as egregious cases of virtue signalling without realising that, ironically, is a type of virtue signalling itself.
So let’s by all means keep writing books and having debates about philanthropy (that’s pretty much what my job entails!), but let’s do it in a way that avoids perpetuating unhelpful generalisations, encouraging cynicism and making it harder to keep good causes afloat. Unless we cultivate appraisals that take as their starting point that philanthropy is a legitimate and potentially positive activity, we need to take ownership of the implications of undermining the philanthropic impulse by demoralising donors and frustrating fundraising.