Why anxiety about philanthropy could make other anxieties worse

Dr Beth Breeze | Director, Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent, UK Fri, 18 Feb 2022

My grandma was a wise woman. Whenever I got anxious about something as a child – exams, acne, friendship troubles – she was short on analysis and long on solutions: “Don’t worry Beth, but what are you going to do about it?”

The confluence of these anxieties is perplexing and frustrating. Philanthropy has a decent track record of tackling a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues – funding vaccination programmes, access to clean water, civil rights, racial justice and modern slavery, to name just some issues that significant philanthropies are currently focused on – and yet it is increasingly being viewed as part of the problem rather than part of a potential solution.

There is much more to be anxious about now as an adult in 2022: COVID, climate change, and social cohesion to name just three concerns amongst many that keep a lot of us awake at night. Another thing that has been causing increasing levels of anxiety over recent years is concern about the role and impact of philanthropy. Some critics argue that private giving, especially the biggest gifts, is a scam that causes more harm than good because it props up an unfair system whilst creating an unjustified halo effect for self-interested donors.

The critical focus on wealthy givers over wealthy non-givers is confusing enough – how have we got to the point where it is less problematic to buy a yacht than to feed hungry children? But the critics, and those who repeat and amplify their concerns, are also missing the crucial point that helping other people is a time-tested coping strategy. This is obvious when we consider the deep urge to “do something” when awful things happen, be they natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or untimely deaths. Much private giving is a way of coping with feelings of helplessness that wash over us all as when we witness terrible things, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 or Australian bush fires in 2020. Even incidents that create no obvious new needs can prompt donations. I was working for a homelessness charity in London in the summer of 1997 when Princess Diana died. The cheques that poured in after that untimely event were often accompanied by handwritten notes expressing a desire to make something good come out of something sad. The same is true for the many charities founded in grief to create a philanthropic legacy in memory of lost loved ones.

Ironically, the university that has produced the most prolific critics of philanthropy was founded for precisely this reason. In 1884, when Leland and Jane Stanford lost their only child, fifteen-year-old Leland Jr, to typhoid fever they decided to found a university in his name so that, in Leland Sr’s words: “the children of California shall be our children”. Despite their institution’s founding story – and its track record in being amongst the first US higher education institutions to admit female and African-American students – some contemporary Stanford professors view philanthropy as inherently problematic. I recently debated with one who advanced the view that ‘Billionaire Philanthropy is bad for society’ and views private giving as a harbinger of plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) despite there being no evidence of any government function anywhere being taken over by private donors. Why would there be, when philanthropists know that their resources are tiny compared to the spending power of tax-funded states, and when the joy in giving comes from doing something extra, and being “the icing on the cake” rather than plugging gaps in government spending, as one philanthropist described it to me. Bill Gates is on record saying “We know that philanthropy can never – and should never – take the place of government”, so I’m curious as to what prompts the critics of philanthropy to continue peddling that line.

It’s important to remember that concerns about private giving are long-standing – people have always worried about the motivations and impact of wealthy donors.

Examples shared in my book date back to 16th century mockery for big donors who “left the blind and lame unhelped except it were on Sundays”, to political and public hand-wringing about the creation of large foundations by John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie at the start of the twentieth century, famously described as “a menace to the welfare of society”. But in my view the chorus of criticism has grown ever-louder in the past decade or so, and the silence from those who appreciate the potential positive role for philanthropy has been deafening.

It’s also important to realise that many philanthropists report feelings of anxiety, lack of confidence and awareness of their “awesome responsibility” in being good givers, as described by Phil Buchanan and that there are a huge number of initiatives underway to address undeniable problems in philanthropy such as power imbalances between grantors and grantees, the lack of diversity amongst grant-makers, and inadequate representation of beneficiary groups.

Anxieties about philanthropy have been set out, they have been heard, and are being worked on. Perhaps not fast enough or by enough philanthropists, but the direction of travel is moving towards more effective and ethical philanthropy.

As my grandma would counsel: less worry and more action is what’s needed! If we wish to encourage more people to give, and to give more thoughtfully, then we need to balance out the critiques with acknowledgement of, and even praise for, the positive potential of philanthropy, including its role in helping us all cope with living in an anxiety-inducing world.

In Defence of Philanthropy – By Beth Breeze