What kind of philanthropy do we need, in these times?


In the past few weeks, I have received multiple requests for donations, mainly from nonprofits and individuals I know. The requests are for the upkeep of operations, providing essential services, etc. and reflect the need for solidarity, that is much needed in these times. Notions of charity, philanthropy, and volunteering are making a comeback in these times, with individuals and organizations doing all they can to adjust to the new reality we are facing. The question that remains before us is: What kind of philanthropy do we need, in these times? Do we need the self-help, communitarian model of giving or do we need billionaires writing large checks to address big problems?  Will self-help groups take us out of the mess that we find ourselves in or will hi-networth giving save us? Or do we need government policies to address systemic issues that philanthropy is unable or unwilling to address?

Bill Gates and Carnegie in Philanthropy

Will the billionaires save us? This is a question that is being increasingly asked among scholars of philanthropy and some activists. While the idea of philanthrocapitalism is still around, there is increasing skepticism in the ability and willingness of the super-rich to help the less fortunate amongst us. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and other billionaires have shaped our world in many ways, both in good ways and bad. The question is not whether they have an impact, but how.

John D. Rockefeller & Carnegie: Remnants of an era gone by, or models for our time?

John D.Rockefeller and Carnegie embodied a ‘gilded age,’ which was known for its corruption and ties between businesses and politics. Perhaps much more than the age we live in, today. Carnegie’s greatest legacy may be the idea of funding and establishing libraries, which are in some ways the great equalizer.

Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth is an important text in American philanthropy and his ideas of giving away wealth while alive has become popular. One of his most famous quotes in the book is “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”  When Carnegie wrote that “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship. The conditions of human life have not only been changed but revolutionized, within the past few hundred years,” he may well have been writing about us, in 2020. The fact that access to healthcare is so disproportionate in the U.S. of today is a tragedy. Media reports point to over 70 percent of deaths in Chicago from COVID-19 being that of African-Americans.

Amidst such catastrophic outcomes, we need government intervention in the form of stronger policies, but also support from foundations, individuals and community-based groups, to help fix some of these disparities.

While there is a section of American society that is deeply suspicious of hi-networth donors – and rightly so – one cannot deny the fact that those with a lot of wealth can and have made significant positive contributions to public life. John D Rockefeller helped establish the University of Chicago, for instance.

The emergence of the ‘new philanthropy’ which is based on measuring return on investment and is based on what Sean Parker has called a ‘hacker’ mindset is in vogue. As Michael Massing points out, Gates has single-handedly shaped Education policy in the U.S. Whether this is a good thing remains in question, given that education is a public good. Some of the bigger questions in this space remain unsettled and there are massive inequities when it comes to access to education, especially digital access, as we are witnessing during COVID-19.

The Giving Pledge is an off-shoot of the idea of giving away one’s wealth that Carnegie came up with. This notion has caught on globally, though its uptick has been somewhat slow in Asia and parts of Africa.  

One of the bigger problems with hi-networth giving is the ‘expressive giving’ that drives many of them. What this means is that rich people give to causes that drive them, at a personal level. There is a sense of strong involvement among many of these folks, who are driven to make a difference around them, for various reasons. Whether it is promoting religious freedoms or healthcare, the one who writes the check wields an enormous amount of influence over the one who receives it. In a context where this can mean shaping a nation’s public health or the education system, this is a slippery slope; despite the good intentions of the donor.

Bill Gates has also received a lot of flak in recent years. His failed educational ventures, with the start and closure of private schools and about turn on this key sector is seen as a big failing. As The Guardian quotes him as saying “The overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about – whether [pupils] go to college – it didn’t move the needle much … We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.” Such mea culpas are expensive and heart-wrenching, when they impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids.

Is Bill Gates the new Andrew Carnegie of our times?

The Gates Foundation has spent considerable amounts on public health and has achieved quite a bit of good in the world, but at the same time has an outsized influence on global health policies. How one interprets that is open to question. Some may call it philanthropic, while others may call it non-democratic. A stricter version would even call it hegemonic influence. The rightwing media has more recently started attacking Mr.Gates for altogether different reasons: his advocacy of stay-at-home orders, differing with Mr. Trump and his followers. His advocacy of preparedness for epidemics has been consistent. His support for this effort is admirable.

Philanthropy’s goal ultimately should be the betterment of lives. This is a goal that all of us agree upon. The divergence seems to be on how to get there. This is an area where all stakeholders – givers of money, recipients, and entities that govern it should come together and hash this out. In this regard, Carnegie’s advice of giving away one’s wealth during one’s lifetime may be the best advice for anyone who has a lot of wealth. The gospel of wealth may be a good reminder for our billionaire class, perhaps? 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *