At its heart, philanthropy is a good thing. A private individual gives their time, expertise and most often, money to support others.
But philanthropy does not happen in isolation. It takes place in a context of politics and power and so it quickly becomes contested and complicated. Would more good be achieved if people paid more taxes instead? Should decisions about what causes get funding be determined by a wealthy elite? This opens up philanthropy to criticism and there are, rightly, calls for it to be more democratic, more strategic and transparent.
But criticism is often leveled at individual philanthropists and the choices they make and this raises a number of issues:
First of all, philanthropy is a public expression of your values. It is an exposing place to be. When philanthropists are then criticised, is it any wonder some chose to stay anonymous or only support safe causes and organisations? This goes against the desire for greater transparency. It also discourages independent philanthropists from their vital role of taking the risks that government funders cannot.
Secondly, it discourages philanthropy altogether. Promoting philanthropy and encouraging more people to give takes public support and peer role models. Philanthropy’s not the answer to all social ills, but in the UK alone there are estimates that persuading more wealthy people to give could easily grow giving by £1.3bn to £5.2bn. (see below). I am fascinated by what we consider acceptable. If you decide to go into banking, no one berates you for not being a doctor or a teacher. So why are we so quick to criticise philanthropic acts?
And lastly, choosing which causes to invest in and which organisations to back is not easy to do. And because philanthropy is personal, people will have different priorities: health, social justice, art, animal welfare. I have certainly heard it argued passionately that there is no point trying to address poverty as climate change is the key issue. And vice versa that environmental change can only occur if injustice is tackled first. Advice, research, consultation with those affected are all incredibly helpful. But there is no right answer. Criticising someone’s choices suggests that there is one right thing to do and worse, supports the idea of the philanthropist as powerful saviour. Philanthropy is better and stronger when everyone is engaged in it and all their gifts are combined – not everyone will support the arts so it is OK if some people do. There is plenty of room to give to small and large, local and global, crisis support and campaigns for long-term systemic change.
So yes, we can educate philanthropists about need. We can help them to make as much difference as they can with their money. Buts let’s do so in a way that creates an encouraging and constructive space that attracts others to join.