This interview originally appeared on Philanthropy New York, News. It is reposted here with permission.
Criticism of philanthropy is not new and, of course, thoughtful critique is essential to improvement. In my own career, I have focused for 20 years, as the leader of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, on bringing feedback from various stakeholders, and especially nonprofits, to foundations and donors. This is vital because of the power dynamic between the funder and the funded, which can make it difficult to offer up candid criticism. I have seen thoughtful donors and foundation leaders use this feedback to reflect and improve.
But, in recent years, we have seen a rise of a different kind of critique: highly generalized negative statements about philanthropy as a “ruse,” “anti-democratic,” or mere “reputation-laundering” emanating from journalists, academicians, and even many inside the world of professionalized philanthropy. These sweeping statements have led, incredibly, to debates about whether philanthropy is even a net positive for society. I have grown increasingly worried about this because I believe so strongly that it is: that nonprofits supported by philanthropy do vital work that isn’t being done effectively by markets or government.
What I haven’t seen, until now, is the kind of powerful counterargument against these sweeping, generalized critiques that is needed. Enter Dr. Beth Breeze and her just-released book, In Defence of Philanthropy. Dr. Breeze reminds us, in the pages of this deeply researched and brilliantly argued book, of the simple truth that giving matters. With evidence, logic, and powerful examples, she shows us the good that effective philanthropy does in supporting organizations doing vital work, the ways it has improved both individual lives and free societies, and its vital role relative to business and government.
Philanthropy, like all good things, can be misused or done poorly, of course. But Dr. Breeze reminds us powerfully of our collective interest in encouraging, and not cynically demeaning, the deeply human impulse to help others.
So I was thrilled to be able to ask Dr. Breeze a few questions about her book and her thinking.
Phil: Why even write a defense of philanthropy, Beth?
Dr. Breeze: The short answer is because it needed saying! I spend a lot of time with people who work in, fund, and support the nonprofit sector and none of us recognized the caricature that had been allowed to develop of mendacious, bloated egotists using philanthropy as an underhand way to advance their own agendas. That’s not to say there are no problems at all with philanthropy — as you rightly say, useful critiques help to highlight and correct specific attitudes and actions. Every donor I’ve met wants their contribution to make a positive difference, so they’re on board with looking for improvements. But carelessly — and sometimes cruelly — dismissing every big giver as a fraud or a fool is not only unfair to those who are trying to help, but more importantly has consequences for work that needs philanthropic funding.
Phil: What kind of criticisms are big givers facing — can you walk us through the major categories of critique?
Dr. Breeze: Sure, I see at least three different, but mutually reinforcing critiques.
Firstly, there’s an academic critique that is focused on undue power and influence, and the suggestion that big giving undermines democracy. There has been a slippage from noting that in some instances philanthropy can be a way of wielding power, which is obviously true, to the statement that ‘all philanthropy is power’ which is a gross overstatement. For example, the fraction of philanthropy that’s concerned with policy issues is tiny even within the U.S., and almost non-existent elsewhere. It’s also worth recalling that elected bodies create the framework within which philanthropy occurs, including defining what does and does not qualify for tax relief, the size of those reliefs, and who can claim them. Failure to properly regulate the philanthropy sector — and, for that matter, failure to properly fund public services which then need to seek private support — are obviously examples of government failure, not philanthropic failure.
Secondly, there’s what I call the ‘insider critique,’ which comes from within the nonprofit sector and is focused on the distribution (or misdirection as they see it) of philanthropic expenditure. The proposition that giving should do as much good as possible is entirely uncontroversial because every donor wants their contribution to be used well. But translating that uncontentious sentiment into specific guidelines for how to conduct philanthropy is less straightforward. Philanthropy is intensely personal and often rooted in autobiographical experiences and concerns, so being told to eliminate subjective concerns and only use altruistic arithmetic to allocate donations can drive the passion and joy out of giving, and make it feel more like paying compulsory tax than voluntary generosity. But let’s say the price of a bit less donor joy is worth the enhanced social impact, there’s also a fundamental issue about the inadequacy of metrics available to guide giving choices. The focus of insider critiques on rigorous, data-driven, and business-like approaches often come unstuck when confronting the reality of complex philanthropic goals and how social change happens in practice. This point is well-made in a cartoon pinned to the noticeboard above my desk, which depicts a bunch of clipboard-carrying bureaucrats telling the Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi: “We won’t fund you because we can’t see the link between spinning and bringing down the Empire”. What I find most perplexing about the insider critiques — especially within the effective altruism movement — is the assumption that philanthropy needs to be better rationed, rather than its total quantum increased. I’d rather focus on growing the overall size of the philanthropic pie, encouraging more donors to be more generous, than pit one approach or cause against the others.
Thirdly there’s a populist critique that encourages a simplistic understanding of the complex role and varied practice of philanthropy. Populists — often to be found on social media — dismiss all private giving as an ‘elite charade’ that masks a self-interested agenda. Big donors are routinely depicted as unlikeable hypocrites using ‘good deeds’ to secure a good deal for themselves, whilst self-reported explanations for giving — such as gratitude, concern for others, or the enjoyment of doing meaningful work — are dismissed as falsehoods or false consciousness. Decades of academic research show that ‘mixed motives’ is the norm for rich and non-rich donors alike, yet populists advance the view that those with large bank accounts are singularly incapable of altruism. Big donors face lose-lose scenarios such as being deemed shady and untransparent if they give secretly, or as ego-driven, image-polishers if they give publicly. There is an obvious price to this endless disapproval: if public condemnation follows philanthropic donations but not the purchase of luxuries, that is good news for companies selling superyachts and bad news for cash-strapped nonprofit organizations.
Phil: Got it. So given how powerful your counter-arguments are, why do these criticisms even stick?
Dr. Breeze: I think there are three reasons that attacks on philanthropy are landing successfully. Firstly, because there’s some truth in them. Thinking of the academic, insider, and populist critiques in turn: some big donors do enjoy some degree of undue power and influence, some giving is inefficient and misdirected, and some donors are hypocritical and unlikeable. It would be astonishing for that to not be the case: to find an activity that is entirely devoid of power dynamics, that is run with total efficiency and effectiveness, and involves a subset of people containing no bad apples. The question is whether it’s fair to generalize from problematic instances to damn the whole orchard. Philanthropy is fallible because people are fallible, but it’s better than a world without philanthropy.
The second reason is that critiques of philanthropy reflect widespread, and entirely understandable, concerns about wealth and inequality. Philanthropists get caught in the crossfire of wider debates about economic injustice because they’re often the only rich people that most of us have heard of. This creates the curious situation where big donations spark a debate about the merits of capitalism and how our societies are structured and organized, whereas buying a private jet does not.
The third reason that attacks on philanthropy stick are because of the lack of counterarguments, which is why I wrote this book. It’s been a very one-sided debate for too long, in which atypical and extreme examples of problematic philanthropy have been presented as commonplace. I hope that more of us who understand the complexity, value, and positive potential of private generosity — especially its essential role in funding nonprofit activity — will decide to speak up.
Phil: So, then, what can be done to improve the reputation of philanthropy — so that we don’t see giving levels stagnate or decline and so we really encourage those with resources to seek to put them to use for good?
Dr. Breeze: I’m not by any means calling for an end to critiques of philanthropy, rather I hope we can become more careful and nuanced in the way we discuss big giving and big givers. I hope we can also broaden the debate to include voices and experiences from outside of the U.S., which represents 4% of the global population yet its ‘local difficulties’ with philanthropy are assumed to apply everywhere. From a European perspective, we hope you can fix what needs fixing — such as more equitable levying and spending of taxes, and better regulation of the philanthropy sector — without casting aspersions on the role and value of private giving across the world.
There are also three simple steps we can all take:
Firstly, we need to stop making — and repeating — blanket statements and crowd-pleasing comments that risk discouraging donors and ultimately harming those who are most reliant on philanthropically-funded work. There are only three things that anyone can do with money: buy things, keep it in the bank and within the family, or give it away. We need more — not fewer — people to choose the latter option so that we can meet the evident needs, and improve the quality of life in our communities, and so that we can have any chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals which have stalled, and in some cases slipped back, during the pandemic.
Secondly, we need to disentangle critiques of philanthropy from critiques of wealth and inequality. One root of this confusion is the belief that philanthropy and tax are alternatives that we have to choose between a generous state and generous individuals, whereas of course we can have — and indeed need — both. The things that are funded by big donors also seek income from smaller donors and from local, national, and international government, as well as from the corporate sector. Wise donors know that their money can’t achieve anything without the expertise and hard work of nonprofit partners on the front line.
Thirdly, donors need to commit to continual improvement so that their contribution creates more ethical and effective social and environmental benefits. This ought to be an easy sell because I have never met, or heard of, a big donor who believes their giving is already perfect and cannot be improved. That quest for improvement is evident in the explosion of donor education initiatives and philanthropy advisory services (i.e. rich people paying good money to get better at giving!), as well as the conferences and donor-led initiatives focused on a wide variety of issues from tackling power dynamics, to improving legitimacy, better collaboration, decolonising philanthropy, trust-based philanthropy, ethical investment, good governance, achieving equity, and greater sustainability. When I challenge critics of philanthropy to identify which they feel are the most positive of these initiatives, the absence of response suggests they are either unaware of these developments or are unwilling to give any credit.
That’s why my sincerest wish is that this book shines a light on good practice and counter-examples that will be of interest to thoughtful critics, as well as reassuring those who have been similarly bewildered by the over-statement of concerns and under-statement of philanthropy’s positive role and potential.
Phil: Beth, thank you so much for taking the time to address these questions and, most importantly, for your book. It is a huge contribution and really a gift to those of us who believe in the power of giving. Thank you.