The Darker Side of Philanthropy

I tend to get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I think of philanthropy. It’s sometimes the only succor to society’s pain. For example, in this current political climate, absolutely no progress would be made toward a greener environment if it weren’t for charitable giving to worthy causes.

In addition, those of us who feel the pain the most are most likely to support social causes. It’s not hard to find articles like this one, which says, in part:

“In an article in The Atlantic this month, author Ken Stern details the charitable divide between the income classes. The author of “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” writes that in 2011, Americans with earnings in the top 20% of income levels contributed, on average, 1.3% of their income to charity. Those at the bottom 20% donated 3.2% of their cash to charity—more than double of what their more-wealthy counterparts donated.

What’s more, Stern says those at the bottom income levels often do not itemize their tax returns, so they aren’t taking advantage of the charitable tax deduction.”

I suspect that the lower classes give more generously because their motivations are more pure. They genuinely want to help various causes. They are less likely to have another agenda.

The rich, on the other hand, quite often do have their reasons. Here are some:

Public Relations. Often, the super-rich obtain their wealth in less than ethical ways, and making donations to charities is one way to whitewash their reputations.

Political motivations. The rich tend to be socially liberal but economically conservative. They’re all for supporting same sex marriage or reduced carbon emissions, but they definitely do not want their taxes raised. So rather than give the money to the government, which would allow we, the people (also known as the unwashed masses), to set the agenda (theoretically) as to how that money gets spent, they prefer to pick and choose their causes themselves with zero oversight and all the power to set the policy.

“No wonder so many prefer philanthropy over taxation. In philanthropy, you can do whatever you want, no matter how misguided you are, no matter what other people think. Taxation, unfortunately for certain rich people, is a collective enterprise in which we make decisions together.” –Anand Giridharadas, American writer, former columnist for the New York Times

“We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” -Leona Helmsley

Talk about setting policy. According to this podcast from the Religion and Ethics Report, Charles Koch, of Koch brothers fame, donated 1 ½ million dollars to Florida State University, but it came with strings attached. He wanted some control over their hiring and firing, and he wanted them to teach his free market libertarian agenda and downplay climate change.

Hiding Your Agenda. Unfortunately, there are a lot of anonymous donations floating around. This is often played off as a humble donor trying to avoid praise, which might be the case sometimes, but there are also a lot of nefarious nonprofit organizations that rely on philanthropy. This article discusses three different foundations that the Southern Poverty Law Center deems to be white supremacist hate groups. Who donates to them? It’s hard to say.

We Know Best. Rich people also have an annoying tendency to be dismissive of the grass roots community. They want to throw money at causes without knowing what works or does not in certain places. According to this article, in the aftermath of a hurricane, one philanthropist wanted to give money for solar panels, when the people still did not have roofs on which to put them. That’s a problem.

I can understand the instinct to give to causes that you’re personally interested in, but this means that the opera tends to receive funding long before the local soup kitchen does. This desire to avoid estate taxes by delving into philanthropy allows rich people to shape society in any way that they see fit. They want to be in control of what we learn, what laws are made, how our environment is looked after, and how our criminal justice system is managed. These are realms that all members of a democratic society should have some influence over. But that’s not how we roll.

Just something to think about the next time you’re praising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Philanthropy

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One thought on “The Darker Side of Philanthropy

  1. Pingback: The Best Part of Philanthropy – The View from a Drawbridge

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