The annual publication of the Johnson Center’s 11 Trends in Philanthropy report is a welcome date in the diary for me, my colleagues, and my students. The eleven think pieces are always well-written and thought-provoking.
One of the trends in the 2022 report — Michael Layton’s Expanding the Definitions of Philanthropy and Philanthropist — suggests we should expand who we count as a philanthropist to include “the myriad ways in which we collectively engage and mobilize our generosity to improve our communities.” This chimes with the argument set out in my new book, In Defence of Philanthropy, in which I explore how the many different critiques now being leveled at philanthropy are affecting public understanding of, and attitudes towards, private generosity. This is resulting in a curious situation where most people give, yet have serious misgivings about other people’s giving.
Such concerns are primarily directed at elite donations by the rich, yet ‘mega-giving’ or ‘billanthropy’ is a far smaller slice of the philanthropy pie than most people realise. In any country, the total value of collective giving by the mass of the population far outweighs the sum of the headline-grabbing donations of the 0.001%.
In research I conducted in 2019, a representative sample of the British public was asked to define ‘philanthropist’. Three of the ten most popular responses were: ‘wealthy,’ ‘rich,’ and ‘money.’ Other responses included ‘bad,’ ‘crafty,’ ‘egotist,’ ‘greedy,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘liar,’ ‘ruthless,’ ‘self-centred,’ and ‘tax-dodger.’
A situation where philanthropy is viewed through the prism of wealth inequality and bad behaviour is far removed from its original meaning of ‘love of humankind’ which can, of course, be shown through an infinite range of actions, words, and emotional support, none of which has a price tag attached, and which are normally understood as pro-social rather than anti-social. Such designations are also understood to be problematic. Almost a fifth of my respondents (18%) agreed that negative perceptions of philanthropists might deter people from giving more to charity.
Public attitudes towards philanthropy have been affected by a handful of high-profile cases of tainted money and tainted donors, such as some members of the Sackler family, Jeffrey Epstein, and Harvey Weinstein. The presence of self-serving motives in these cases has understandably caused anger, and the knock-on effect on trust in philanthropists has undermined the general reputation of philanthropy.
The speed with which ‘philanthropist’ has shifted from being an aspirational identity to one that provokes suspicion about deflected misconduct, is all the more surprising given the known positive role that much private giving has played in recent years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, philanthropists have funded research into vaccinations and cures and have provided relief to those affected by lockdowns, including financial support and practical help to those isolated.
Private donors are also helping to rebuild civil society for when we finally emerge from this crisis, during which progress that had previously been made to tackle entrenched global social ills such as poverty, hunger, and inadequate access to education, has not just slowed but sadly reversed. Reaching the Sustainable Development Goals will need more, not less, philanthropy, working in partnership with national and international governments.
Despite this evident need, critiques of philanthropy — which range from well-articulated scholarly concerns about the exercise of power in democratic societies to scurrilous slurs on social media — have combined to create a common view of private giving as at best questionable, and at worse as something that causes more harm than good.
“To put it simply: people dislike donors but like what they fund. As one cannot exist without the other, this gap in approval gives an insight into public confusion about philanthropy.”
Yet concerns about the motivation and impact of philanthropists are decoupled from more positive views on the work of philanthropically-funded organisations. To put it simply: people dislike donors but like what they fund. As one cannot exist without the other, this gap in approval gives an insight into public confusion about philanthropy.
Tackling this discrepancy requires telling more diverse stories about a broader range of philanthropic action — financial and non-financial — to put Sackler et al into perspective. There are, of course, problematic donors but they are neither typical nor inevitable. Much giving is motivated by a sincere desire to help make the world a better place, and a growing number of donors are keen to understand how they can become more ethical and effective givers.
We need to move away from the current position where the idea of ‘philanthropy’ and the word ‘philanthropist’ typically bring to mind images of rich white men who either inherited their fortunes or made it through exploitative and extractive ventures.
Counter-examples are plentiful, given that most of us donate our treasure, time, and talent to support nonprofits that make life better for people in every community. Whether or not Ernest Hemingway did reply to Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that “The rich are different from you and me” by responding “Yes, they’ve got more money,” the point still stands that the size of one’s bank account is not a determination of character.
“The key challenge facing the philanthropy sector is to improve the overall amount of ethical and effective giving, rather than making those with the greatest capacity to give feel the least welcome in the nonprofit space.”
Rich and poor donors alike can give more or less carefully, and with greater or lesser impact. The key challenge facing the philanthropy sector is to improve the overall amount of ethical and effective giving, rather than making those with the greatest capacity to give feel the least welcome in the nonprofit space.
High-profile illustrations can help to dislodge entrenched views that rich donors are inevitably self-serving and harbingers of harm rather than help. For example, one of the brighter headlines of the past two years was the news that female country music icon Dolly Parton, from a self-proclaimed ‘dirt poor’ background, helped fund the development of the Moderna vaccine.
Parton’s path to philanthropic impact is highly typical: Most philanthropy starts with a personal connection, an autobiographical stroke of fate — for better or worse — that, given the right combination of generosity, sympathetic stewardship by the recipient organisation, and cultural approval by wider society, results in private actions that promote the public good.
The serendipitous incident, in this case, was a minor car crash in Nashville in 2013 which led Parton to check into Vanderbilt University Medical Center where she met physician Dr. Naji Abumrad. Despite knowing nothing about each other’s careers, the two clicked and enjoyed talking about current affairs and science. When Dr. Abumrad, who works at the university’s Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation later told Parton that his lab was making “exciting advances” in the early stages of the search for a cure for COVID-19, the million-dollar gift was made to honour her friend and, in Parton’s words “to help” and “do good.”
This research eventually received nearly $1 billion in federal funding and was the second potential vaccine to demonstrate high levels of efficacy. When Parton described feeling “very honoured and proud” of the outcome, she also noted that collaboration across donors of all wealth levels was key to success, saying: “I’m sure many millions of dollars from many people went into that [research fund] but I felt so proud to have been part of that little seed money that will hopefully grow into something great and help to heal this world.”
Parton is correct that big gifts from major donors like herself are typically joined by many smaller amounts from a mass of anonymous individuals, with the combined value of the latter exceeding the total value of major donations.
The story of Dolly Parton and the COVID-19 vaccine offers a crucial insight into the role and nature of philanthropy in contemporary society: the importance of social networks connecting those who have money with those who can put that money to good use, a desire to express gratitude for help received, an exciting opportunity, and an aspiration to make something good happen.
This is why it is so important to push back against the increasingly widespread suggestion that philanthropy is inherently problematic rather than, as I believe, worth defending and encouraging. Philanthropy is fallible because people are fallible, but the logical outcome of that realisation is to educate and support people to become better donors rather than to give up on big givers.
“Philanthropy is fallible because people are fallible, but the logical outcome of that realisation is to educate and support people to become better donors rather than to give up on big givers.”
Critics of philanthropy may take satisfaction in exposing problems with private generosity — some of which are longstanding and undeniable — but the fact remains that most nonprofits are reliant on voluntary donations. Raising that money is difficult enough without undermining one of the few ‘benefits’ that fundraisers can offer to donors: that they will feel better about themselves, and be thought better of by other people, if they are generous.
Whilst the state can compel people to pay taxes, and for-profit entities satisfy consumers’ wants and needs, the nonprofit sector enjoys neither that stick nor those carrots, and primarily relies on private giving being viewed positively. This is why those of us who are aware of the positive potential of philanthropy need to speak up in its defence. It is hard enough to fund a sector in the absence of compulsion or compelling self-interest, and that challenge is compounded when aspersions are cast on the legitimacy of philanthropy, the motivations of philanthropists, and the efficacy of philanthropic acts.
Maintaining trust in our sector also requires us to engage seriously when there are genuine concerns about the sources of money on offer, when unreasonable demands are being made by potential donors, or when other negative aspects — including unintentional consequences — are related to any specific donor or donation. But we must resist the temptation to generalise from the occasional rotten apple to writing off the broader altruistic barrel.
We all have a stake in philanthropy, as both givers and recipients, and need to reclaim it from its current elitist and denigrated niche, because it is not — and never has been — the preserve of rotters or the rich.