How to defend philanthropy in eleven words

By: Dr Beth Breeze OBE   |   Director, University of Kent’s Centre for Philanthropy

When I’m given a brief, I like to deliver. I was asked to write a 500-word provocative piece in the run up to a talk I’ll be giving at the Philanthropy Australia conference, based on my book In Defence of Philanthropy. So here it is, and I can do it in just 11 words:

The critics of philanthropy are, on the whole, over-opinionated and under-read.

To get the full version, please do come to the conference or get a copy of the book (ideally both). But I’ll have a go at explaining what I mean in the remaining 400 words.

Critics of philanthropy raise a wide variety of concerns including that it disrupts the workings of democracy because wealthy people get a bigger, tax-advantaged say in how society is run, and that the motivations of philanthropists are suspect because it is self-interest in disguise, avarice dressed up as altruism.

The ‘under-read’ accusation is that these concerns are hardly new. For centuries private gifts, especially those made by the rich and already-powerful, have raised understandable questions and accusatory declarations. Some are focused on the motivation behind such acts: are these donors trying to buy a place in heaven? Hoping to befriend the great and the good? Seeking to overturn a tarnished reputation? Whilst other concerns focus on the consequences of philanthropic acts: are they enabling plutocracy (the rule of the rich)? Do they sustain and extend fundamentally unjust structures? Do they ameliorate and fail to tackle root problems, or do they inappropriately try to tackle root problems that should only be the purview of elected governments? 

The answers that are found by reading up on the history of philanthropy and in contemporary scholarship on philanthropy are: “maybe sometimes to some extent, but by no means always, and by the way: how about all the positive contributions that private giving makes?”. 

Which takes us to my second point: The ‘over-opinionated’ accusation is that critics frequently over-state the nature and extent of problems inherent to, and caused by philanthropy, and that they simultaneously under-state, or entirely overlook, its positive impact and potential. 

To take two of the concerns noted above: it is a conscious choice to highlight purported democratic deficits whilst ignoring the crucial role that private funding plays in funding the thriving civil societies on which all democracies depend. On closer inspection the abuse of power and influence that worry these critics often looks more like examples of government failure in the US (where most critics reside), such as the failure to regulate the role of money in politics or to fund decent healthcare and education for all.

Critics are also curiously resistant to acknowledging the well-known presence of mixed motives - as any kid knows: giving makes you feel good whilst doing good. It is a choice to only see self-interest and not the many well-known humane and positive drivers of philanthropy such as gratitude, empathy, compassion, religious conviction, a sense of duty, anger at the existence of unmet needs, and making sense of personal circumstances including unexpected wealth as well as grief and loss that impels many to “make something good out of something bad”.

Finally, it is also a choice to decide whether or not to acknowledge the many positive outcomes of philanthropy such as the millions of lives saved by private funding of medical research and healthcare, as well as the improved quality of life enjoyed by people across time and across the globe who benefit from philanthropically-funded arts, culture, sport, and civic amenities. 

It is time to call out the over-opinionated and the under-read because their criticism is getting louder, is landing well (including within the philanthropy sector) and is facing little pushback. So let me end this brief ‘taster’ of my talk with a 26-word summary of my argument: Philanthropy is not perfect but nor is it inherently problematic. It is improvable but not illegitimate, and it has value that urgently needs articulating and defending. 

Dr Beth Breeze is a Keynote Speaker at next month’s Philanthropy Australia Conference.


Aug. 12, 2022

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