Philanthropists must change the system that created them
In his book The Givers, David Callahan argues that philanthropy is creating a new plutocracy. Although I’m convinced by the evidence he offers, I always feel torn whenever I write something that criticises philanthropists. On the one hand, if a wealthy person spends their money on an arts institute, then isn’t that better than them buying another superyacht? I’d hate to think that I contributed to a narrative that discouraged nice rich folk to engage in altruism. On the other hand, I'm sickened by the concept that super-wealthy people are given tax breaks to wield power over others.
Is it a case of ‘Hate the Game, Not the Player’?
Listening to three unbelievably wealthy people discuss ‘How to be an effective philanthropist’ at a public lecture compelled me to blog about this dilemma. All of them were committed, ambitious and intelligent. Yet there was little mention of social justice. Few wealthy people fund work that tries to overhaul the systems that allowed them to amass their disproportionate fortunes in the first instance. Fortunes that then offer them the ability to influence media, politicians, and civil society.
One of the ‘effective philanthropists’ (without naming names) is a great example of my internal struggle: the push towards critiquing the very existence of philanthropy versus the pull away from criticising individuals who try to do something positive with their fortune. Having inherited a ton of money at 18, she had set up her foundation at an age when most of us are still working out how to set up a bank account. (The very notion of a teenager inheriting so much money that they feel compelled to give it away speaks to something rotten at the core of our system. Surely a fair approach to tax and redistribution wouldn't result in dynastic wealth and child millionaires?)
But with that money, she has done incredible things - shifting the debate about philanthropic transparency, funding niche enterprises, encouraging donor collaboration. And she seems to have done so with an attitude of curiosity, humility and respect. Yet at the end of the day, she is a wealthy person indulging her interests in a system that allows her to wield disproportionate influence because of that wealth. Just because I agree with her, is it any better than the Koch brothers funding voter suppression? (In case anyone’s uncertain about my thoughts on this, I’d just like to make it totally clear that yes, yes it is better.)
Buying a seat at the table
Perhaps this issue bears heavy on me because the other participant in the event did not have such a compelling argument for her staggering influence. She proudly talked of how philanthropy allowed her to have a seat at the table with ministers deciding budgets, and be part of negotiations on the domestic health policies of foreign nations. The influence of this ‘philanthropist’ is far beyond that of any average expert. And why? Because she has a chequebook that far exceeds that of your average expert.
I don’t doubt that she, and her foundation, aren’t doing fabulous work, and perhaps may have saved many lives. But why should she be allowed to save lives with her tax-avoided funds, while those of us paying tax as normal see biting cuts to the public services we rely on? Why should she be able to buy influence, social capital and a warm glow to boot? Why is a sense that ‘you can change the world’ yet another privilege of wealth?
There is a better way
As much as I’d like to see people affected by the issues making the decisions about where money goes (‘participatory grantmaking’), I acknowledge that this is not for everyone. But for rich folk who want to be engaged givers, there are options. Resource Generation, works with wealthy young people to help them become transformational leaders. The EDGE Funders Alliance is organising philanthropy to consider systemic change. These initiatives are the only way we’ll truly have ‘effective philanthropy’. Wealthy, privileged people need to question their wealth and privilege, and support those who don’t benefit from the system to dismantle it.
So despite feeling torn about criticising people I admire (I should’ve talked about the Koch brothers), I think it’s necessary if doing so highlights a broken system. I do fear discouraging the wealthy from giving (the thoughtful wealthy, at least; the only people who this discussion may reach are those who are already questioning their legitimacy. Totally self-interested ‘philanthropists’ never bother to engage with broader debates). Yet this fear is balanced against a sense that it’s wrong to buy a seat at the table with elected officials.
I don’t want philanthropists to stop giving, I just want them to give in a way that may allow everybody to be an ‘effective philanthropist’ one day.
The Game is rigged; the Players should be trying to fix it.