CHARITARIANISM VERSUS PHILANTHROPY

At this time of year, when charity, giving, and philanthropy are receiving lots of attention, it’s appropriate to reflect on their roles, goals, and philosophies. Often, charity and philanthropy are lumped together and not differentiated, but, technically, there is a difference.

Simply put, charity is about the receiver and philanthropy, narrowly defined, is about the giver. Charity is about helping people – reducing hardship and suffering, making other people’s lives better. Philanthropy, narrowly defined, is about the donor feeling good for having done something meritorious, perhaps relieving guilt, and receiving credit, publicity, and acknowledgement for having done a good deed. Lawrence Berenson, a wealthy financier, has been promoting “charitarian” behavior as opposed to philanthropic behavior. [1]

With this perspective, it isn’t hard to see some philanthropy as self-serving, such as when donors give large amounts of money to well-established, already wealthy institutions to have their names on buildings, professorships, or other high visibility items. A current example is the attention that’s now focused on the philanthropy of the Sackler family. They are the owners of Purdue Pharma and the aggressive, unethical purveyors of Oxycontin. Their drug and their actions were huge contributors to the opioid crisis. Tufts University recently announced that it would remove the Sackler name from several facilities given the taint on how the Sacklers made the money used for their donations. The Sackler family has responded by threatening a lawsuit.

An underlying requirement for high-profile, large-scale philanthropy is great wealth in the hands of individuals. Therefore, it is inextricably linked to high levels of economic inequality. [2] This was true of the great industrial fortunes of the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century and is true of the large fortunes created in the last few decades from financial investing and speculation, as well as from high technology companies. The large fortunes of today (e.g., Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Buffet, Waltons, etc.) are larger than those of the Gilded Age and have relatively young, living owners.

In both the Gilded Age and today, philanthropy has been viewed simultaneously as a social good and a social menace. The high levels of economic inequality required for large-scale philanthropy are linked to inequality in political power, as important decision-making that has significant effects on the public and society is in the private hands of a few very wealthy individuals (i.e., how to use, including in philanthropic ways, great personal wealth). This is profoundly undemocratic. [3] Large-scale philanthropy, whether directly from individuals or through foundations, is largely lacking in public transparency and accountability; the public is not involved and has no say or oversight. [4] Berenson, the promoter of charitarianism, is a founding member of Patriotic Millionaires, which is promoting discussions of solutions to political and economic inequality in the U.S. (You can watch a 28 minute YouTube interview of him on these topics here.)

By some measures, today’s philanthropy is broader than in the past; tens of thousands of new foundations have been created in the last 30 years. Both today and in the Gilded Age, the philanthropy of the wealthy has often been done through foundations. However, this recent surge in foundation creation is in part stimulated by tax avoidance because by putting money into a foundation the owner can claim it as a charitable deduction and significantly reduce income taxes. [5]

Foundation-based philanthropy can be very inefficient. Many foundations have high overhead expenses, such as nice office space and large staff expenses for running the foundation. In part, this reflects the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requirement that for foundations’ to be tax-exempt they must spend 5% of their assets (i.e., total value) each year. In addition to donations, this required spending can include operational expenses, such as the costs of office space and staff. Furthermore, there are many examples, particularly among smaller foundations, where many of a foundation’s employees are family members or friends who are paid very nice salaries or where the foundation funds other self-serving activities. Recently, a Donald Trump foundation emerged as a prominent example of this. New York State recently ordered it to pay fines and be shut down because of its inappropriate and self-serving spending. Moreover, many small foundations, for example a family foundation that wants to help address a health issue that afflicted a family member, give their money to another foundation that actually does research or provides medical care for that health issue. Therefore, the amount of money that actually goes to doing social good is reduced by multiple iterations of foundations’ overhead expenses. [6]

A fast-growing vehicle for philanthropy that has entered the mainstream only recently is the donor-advised fund (DAF). A DAF is like a miniature foundation; an individual gives money to a personal account typically setup and managed at a community foundation or an investment manager such as Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard. The donor can take an immediate tax deduction for the money put into the DAF but can designate the non-profit organizations to receive the money over time. [7]

Fidelity Charitable, a donor-advised fund manager, received over $9 billion in 2018, nearly triple the amount received by the largest traditional charity, United Way Worldwide. There is no required time window for the money in DAFs to be distributed to charities (such as the requirement that foundations spend 5% of their assets annually). Critics of DAFs note that this means that billions of dollars are sitting in these DAFs that otherwise would be going directly to help those in need if DAFs didn’t exist. Moreover, the DAF managers are making money on management fees; this means they have a disincentive to see the DAF monies donated. The managers also spend significant sums on promoting and marketing the use of DAFs because they make money on them. In other words, they promote these pseudo-charities in ways that real charities don’t or can’t promote themselves.

For over a century, large-scale philanthropy and foundations have had significant effects on public policies and programs. For example, the Gates Foundation had a major influence on the development of the Common Core educational standards. In 2008 and 2009, the Gates Foundation made large grants to the association of the states’ K-12 education commissioners and to the National Governors Association to build (buy?) their political support for the Common Core standards and to facilitate their development. Subsequently, adoption of the Common Core Standards has been incentivized by federal education funding. They were adopted by 42 states (although 4 states subsequently dropped them). [8]

Philanthropy today is more policy-oriented and politically aggressive than it has been in the past. This is both fueling and being driven by the current extreme partisanship in our society linked to political parties and extreme ideologies. It is also both a contributor to and a result of the decline in the effectiveness, respect for, and resources available to our public sector. This clearly has had a negative effect on our democracy and reflects the social menace aspect of large-scale philanthropy and the inequality related to it. Some scholars have made the case that there is a cause and effect link between increased political philanthropy and decreased civic engagement by citizens.

To promote charitarianism as opposed to philanthropy (narrowly defined) and to ensure that philanthropy’s potential for doing good wins out over its potential to be a social menace, oversight is needed to:

  • Ensure that foundations and donor-advised funds are focused on doing social good rather than being self-serving and that their focus is on benefiting the receivers (i.e., helping people and making the world a better place) and not on benefiting the givers (directly or indirectly)
  • Require greater public accountability and transparency, including public input and democratic decision-making
  • Ensure that foundations and donor-advised funds are not simply a vehicle for tax avoidance by the well-off

Without oversight, philanthropy can be a self-serving, self-perpetuating capitalistic enterprise as opposed to a charitarian one. To make philanthropy more charitarian, the inextricable link between philanthropy and economic inequality must be acknowledged and understood. Policies and regulations should be put in place to ensure that charity and a focus on the receivers take precedence over the self-interests and desires for recognition and acclaim of the givers.

[1]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, “Charitarian patriotism,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/charitarian-patriotism-lawrence-benenson/)

[2]      Cohen, R. M., 9/21/16, “Q&A: Pulling back the curtain on education philanthropy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/education/q-a-pulling-back-curtain-education-philanthropy/)

[3]      Soskis, B., 8/22/17, “Gift horse or Trojan Horse?” The American Prospect (This is a review of the book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan.) (https://prospect.org/labor/gift-horse-trojan-horse/)

[4]      Soskis, B., 8/22/17, see above

[5]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, see above

[6]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, see above

[7]      Preston, C., 10/28/16, “Is Wall Street taking over charity?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/wall-street-taking-charity/)

[8]      Cohen, R. M., 9/21/16, see above

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