Some say the field of philanthropy rests on a fundamental contradiction. It aims to solve social problems and redistribute wealth. Yet it is a product of a system of unequal accumulation, which could be critiqued as causing the problems that philanthropy seeks to solve. Should philanthropy address this contradiction? Can it?
Philanthropy, in its current institutional form, is only about a century old. Since its inception, both donors and the larger public have debated how individuals can deploy their accumulated wealth to serve the greater good. In 1910, when John D. Rockefeller tried to obtain a federal charter to establish his foundation, Congress turned him down. (He had more success with the New York State Legislature, which granted him a state charter in 1913.)
And in 1912, the Commission on Industrial Relations recommended that the Rockefeller Foundation be regulated or shut down entirely, arguing that “the domination by the men in whose hands the final control of a large part of American industry rests is not limited to their employees, but is being rapidly extended to control the education and ‘social service’ of the Nation.”
Over a hundred years later, the field of philanthropy still wrestles with these important questions. As Gara LaMarche asked in the online journal Democracy, “Why are we…hypersensitive to the dangers of big money in politics…but blind, it seems, to the dangers of big philanthropy in the public sphere?”
Yesteryear’s wealth was built through oil and steel, but much of today’s new money is culled through data and software. And though we seem to have entered a virtual world, its effects are extremely physical. In our current gilded era, the fortunes of Gates and Zuckerberg compete with the more democratic processes of government. Their choices affect how our children are educated, who is healthy or suffers from disease (whether or not the abuses of big pharma are addressed), and the mechanisms by which we will or will not tackle climate change.
While the Internet has democratized access to knowledge and information in many ways, the biggest winners are still primarily white and primarily male. Companies like Apple make use of tax havens, even as inequality remains on the rise. Meanwhile, children as young as seven are mining cobalt for smart phone batteries, and families from diverse backgrounds are being pushed out of their homes in San Francisco, where the tech industry has taken over. While the tech industry may be heralding some kinds of progress, it does not seem to be interested in the fundamental causes of inequality.
The virtual world reiterates the inequalities of the physical world. Is philanthropy enough to redress these problems, or is there something more fundamental at stake?
In “The Gospel of Wealth,” written in 1889 as a manifesto of sorts for the beneficiaries of the first Gilded Age, Andrew Carnegie acknowledged vast inequality as the unavoidable consequence of a free market system. He then suggested that philanthropy would ease the pressures created by inequality.
Perhaps it is time for a New Gospel of Wealth. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently cited Martin Luther King, Jr’s insight: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
In other words, one can and should be wary of the role of rule by plutocracy, even when it seems benevolent. But putting aside the blunt critiques, we are interested in the proactive question: How does philanthropy understand the economic system that is its maker?
We have asked a number of leaders in philanthropy to provide their answers to these questions: Should philanthropy address the inequality of which it is a symptom? And if so, how?
Check out the other pieces from our forum! And if you have something to say on this hugely fascinating topic, please hit “Write a response” below and type away.
In Philanthropy, Who Is Actually Broken?
“Philanthropists need more than ‘big ideas’ about how their profession could and should change. They need radically new…
Philanthropists Should Put Themselves Out of Business
Instead, we must organize to confront and change the cultural and economic systems that perpetuate inequality.
A Bright New Generation Battles Inequality
“This is a tremendous opportunity to get in front of questions about how philanthropy and our economic system…
How to Fix Philanthropy
We need to get hungrier, partner with the public sector, and have uncomfortable conversations about race and class.
Hey, Philanthropy: Don’t Wring Your Hands. Get to Work.
There is a real tension at the heart of contemporary philanthropy. The challenge is to make it a creative one.
This forum first appeared at the Nation magazine. // The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence.