In recent years, philanthropy has become a highly controversial topic. Defined by Merriam-Webster as an “active effort to promote human welfare,” the term is often more specifically associated with the wealthy giving to the poor. In addition, due to a number of high-profile scandals surrounding the wealthy and their “charitable” work, philanthropy has come to have a negative connotation. The questionable actions of various celebrities and business owners in relation to their foundations has given philanthropy as a whole an unfavorable — and often incorrect — reputation, which works against the many genuine efforts of sincere philanthropists.
Many of today’s scandals are reflected in the trails of corruption and exploitation left by early renowned philanthropists, all of which have contributed to the tainted image of modern philanthropy. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie essentially invented the concept of wealthy philanthropy when he published “The Gospel of Wealth,” an article arguing that it’s the responsibility of the rich to donate their surplus riches. However, he spent the first five decades of his life exploiting thousands of laborers in his steel factories, forcing them to work long hours with low wages in dangerous conditions. While Carnegie set the crucial standards of modern philanthropy, his deep faults are also reflected in a small portion of philanthropists today.
In our bid for a better system, we are attacking the source of systemic improvement.
Take, for example, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, who has a net worth of more than $108 billion. In 1998, his company was charged and convicted of illegally maintaining its monopoly position in the personal computer market, and Gates was condemned as a cutthroat monopolist. Two years later, he established the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, and was soon extolled as generous philanthropist. More recently, at this year’s World Economic Forum, billionaire Michael Dell was asked to share his opinions on the new tax proposals for the very wealthy. Dell said he was “much more comfortable” giving through his private foundation “than giving … to the government.” As journalist Chuck Collins wrote, Dell is “not the first billionaire to confuse his obligations to society and conflate charitable giving with paying taxes.” There is no denying that the world of wealth is one strife with corruption, and that there are certainly benefactors who act with self-interest in a way that can do more damage than good.
However, the reality is that these situations are a minute portion of the greater philanthropy happening in our world, a narrow look past the huge amount of good that comes from much of the upper class’s charitable giving. As the organization Learning to Give explained, “Philanthropy is a critical part of a democratic society [because it] focuses on the elimination of social problems,” while charity focuses on eliminating the suffering caused by those problems. Most of the private foundations in the US – of which there are over 44,000 – direct their funds and energy towards resolving the source of societal issues and the resulting suffering, rather than treating the suffering directly. Philanthropy works towards prevention and elimination, not just alleviation. In 2019, Americans donated upwards of $450 billion, a large portion coming from philanthropic foundations. Those funds enabled the work of thousands of humanitarian projects and organizations. Society simply would not be able to function the way it does without that financing.
The problem with the American view of philanthropy is that it’s inhibiting. As an anonymous billionaire donor explained to journalist Michelle Celarier, “Is all philanthropy going to be seen as toxic? If giving money away makes the donor look bad, what donor is going to give money away?” In our bid for a better system, we are attacking the source of systemic improvement. Philanthropy is essential to the betterment of society, and Americans must come to accept that. Education is key; be aware of potential philanthropic immoralities, but don’t let them define your view of philanthropy as a whole. In our current capitalistic economy, it’s essential that we embrace the work and funding of philanthropists to support our journey towards an improved society.