More than a century ago, when The American oil magnate John D Rockefeller tried to create his tax-free foundation that has since tackled disease, malnutrition and discrimination around the world, he has met with widespread resistance, from the White House to Britain’s literary salons.
Theodore Roosevelt said “no amount of charity in spending such fortunes can in any way compensate for the misconduct to obtain it”. The novelist GK Chesterton compared Rockefeller to the medieval “bad barons” who tried to whiten the memory of their raids by donating land to the church.
As Beth Breeze describes in her enthusiastic In defense of philanthropy, Rockefeller and his fellow “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie were just two of the more prominent donors throughout history who faced skepticism about their motives and criticism of their actions.
Ever since philanthropy was articulated in the Greek myth of Prometheus Bound in the fifth century BC, suspicion of gifts to mankind from the “gods” has been a recurring theme. In the early Middle Ages, the Reverend Bede warned against “the injustice of gifts to the poor made from wealth obtained through the exploitation of those who then needed charity.” In fiction, writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Charles Dickens mocked and parodied the givers.
Breeze, director of the Center for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, which, based on her background as a charity fundraiser, adviser and academic, suggests that most contemporary criticism is skewed and adds nothing new. But her core argument is that – from snippets on social media to more substantial books like Anand Giridharadas’s Winners take everything – the intensity of the controversy increased and the tone became relentlessly negative, leading to the risk of philanthropists being deterred and giving up.
She identifies and seeks to destroy three criticisms: the academic, who claims that philanthropists seek to entrench unequal power and exacerbate inequality rather than solve societal problems; the insider who indicates that donors’ gifts and priorities are misdirected to the wrong causes; and the populists, who question their underlying motives, sometimes with ad hominem attacks.
Breeze points out that criticism of philanthropy is often mixed with criticism of wealth and the methods of obtaining it. Despite tax concessions given to charitable gifts, philanthropists continue to make a positive contribution – both to provide net cash from their own pockets and to spend it in more positive ways than on yachts or other personal indulgences.
They often took up reforms only late or in part by the government – from public baths in ancient Rome to access to education for the poor, the abolition of slavery and child labor, or the rebuilding of Notre-Dame.
She points out that while some donors are more preoccupied with self-interest, social climbing and narcissism than social reform, others – such as those who are in line with groups such as Millionaires for Mankind and Patriotic Millionaires – calling for higher taxes, a living wage and attacks on monopolistic behavior or predatory business practices.
Copper plates and foundations designed to last forever can benefit some donors’ egos, but others give in a lower profile way and sometimes just reluctantly lend their name to add credibility or to encourage others to join in. to give them.
A century ago, Kodak founder George Eastman handed out free shares to his employees, pioneered, made progressive sick pay and pension arrangements, gave them a pseudonym to MIT, and donated almost all of his wealth during his lifetime. More recently, Chuck Feeney, founder of airport retailer Duty Free Shoppers, anonymously channeled his $ 8 billion fortune via Atlantic Philanthropies.
Breeze also suggests that criticisms of misuse of resources are often unfair: people have different but legitimate views on society’s greatest needs, and an excessive focus on “value for money” can come at the expense of underlying activities, such as basic research, which is more difficult to quantify.
One academic book in 2015 quoted a critic of Bill Gates as saying “it’s a no-brainer that the biggest problem in the future is not infectious diseases”. Yet in that same year, the Microsoft co-founder warned against the dangers of the impending pandemic and sharpened funding that helped advance record-breaking development of new vaccines to protect against Covid-19.
While offering a powerful counterpoint, Breeze’s own book has one important limitation, which is shared with many philanthropists: the lack of data. Even though attacks on donors have increased, she provides little evidence that this has led to a drop in donations.
There is also no attempt to quantify how donations are spent, which will help readers understand the scope of “good” versus “bad” practices. Breeze is certainly right that while philanthropy is improveable, it is not illegal. But it remains a legitimate target for rigorous investigation.
In defense of philanthropy by Beth Breeze. Agenda Publishing, £ 19.99, 192 pages