Amidst growing critiques of private giving, Ratna Omidvar, host of the Reimagining Philanthropy podcast, asks author and researcher Beth Breeze if philanthropy is still relevant. Breeze asserts that we hear more about the smaller problems than the greater good that philanthropy contributes to society.
In this episode of Reimagining Philanthropy, Senator Ratna Omidvar talks to Beth Breeze about whether philanthropy is still relevant.
In Breeze’s opinion, it absolutely is, even as Omidvar points out that there have been “growing critiques of private giving.” Breeze explains that “philanthropy is not just something abstract. It’s something real, and real people are depending on it.” It is not perfect, of course, as nothing is, but she asks listeners to be mindful of how they criticize the industry. Although it is easy to be dismissive of philanthropy, Breeze points out that criticisms are often actually about wealth and not philanthropy itself. Hence, a way forward requires acknowledging the differences. Within that framework, she raises concerns about jading future donors from seeing philanthropy as “a viable option” and cautions listeners to consider the organizations that are still dependent on philanthropy.
Listen here or watch the video.
Links to projects mentioned:
- Read Breeze’s book, In Defence of Philanthropy and Hilary Pearson’s review in The Philanthropist Journal
- Take a look at the University of Kent’s Centre for Philosophy, which Breeze co-founded
- Dive into Breeze’s years of research publications on philanthropy
- Learn more about the Patriotic Millionaires group and their mission to tax the rich more
- Read the original interview in which Melinda Gates talks about “attacks on philanthropy” versus an “attack on wealth”
Senator Ratna Omidvar: Hello and welcome to Reimagining Philanthropy, a series produced in collaboration with The Philanthropist Journal that explores the issues and questions the sector needs to be reflecting and acting on.
So the last few years have changed our lives. But I know it has also changed the way we think. And in this particular case, how we think about philanthropy. I think it is fair to say that philanthropy, at least how it is perceived, is under threat. Under threat because voices from the margins have called out philanthropy as a construct for the privileged, for the elite, and challenged the notions that philanthropists can change the world without addressing issues of inequity, injustice, and racism. And so this is the crossroads we find ourselves at. How do we sort this out?
To help us find the way forward, I will be speaking to voices in the sector who will inform us, challenge us, maybe even irritate us, but that’s all right, because we’re not here to have the easy conversations, we’re here to have the difficult ones. I am your host, Senator Ratna Omidvar, for these conversations hosted by The Philanthropist.
To kick us off, I am joined by an expert, and my job is to get the best out of her without getting in the way of the conversation, and she is Beth Breeze. Beth Breeze is both an academic and a practitioner. She has been a fundraiser and a charity manager before pivoting to academia. She is now the co-founder of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, where she leads a team conducting research and teaching courses on philanthropy and fundraising. And she’s the author of many books on philanthropy, most recently, In Defence of Philanthropy, a timely response to growing critiques of private giving. So welcome and hello, Beth.
Beth Breeze: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
RO: It is absolutely wonderful to connect this way. You’re in Kent. I’m in Toronto. But we both have an abiding interest in philanthropy. Interest is maybe too neutral a word; I should say, passion for philanthropy. So let’s start off with your passion for philanthropy. How did you come to it? What’s been your introduction to it?
BB: So I think even as a child growing up in the north of England, charity, rather than the word philanthropy, which probably came later, charity was just a natural part of life. My parents were interested in supporting charities. We didn’t have much money, but that’s what you did. You partly gave money to the causes you cared about. My mum sponsored a child abroad. My parents supported different charities. We also were quite involved in the church. I grew up as a Catholic and my dad was quite an active trade unionist. And we were all supportive of the Labour Party, which is to the left of politics in Britain.
So my understanding as a child was that there are things you can do to make your community better, to respond when things happen, and those things are quite varied. They might involve voting, might involve organizing at work, they might involve donating money or time – there’s just things you can do, you have agency, and that just seemed very natural to me as a child. I think that’s probably quite far removed from what people think of when they think of philanthropy. But really, philanthropy is all of those things because all it means is love of mankind, being aware of, caring for, and responding to needs in your community.
So I see a fairly natural seed from those childhood experiences to what I study and try to understand now as a grown-up. I think though, the first time I heard the word philanthropy was when I was the beneficiary of it. So looking at my later childhood, when I was 16, I wanted to leave Leeds and have an adventure and go and experience the world and expand my education. And I was incredibly lucky to be awarded a full scholarship to attend a United World College. There’s one in Canada, in Vancouver; the one I went to was in Wales. There was no way my family could have afforded that. We didn’t have that kind of money at all. But for some reason, I was able to go because a single philanthropist – in this case an individual called Sir Maurice Laing, who had a construction company – fully funded two scholarships, and I got one of them. I still have to look back and think, how did that happen? It really changed my life. So for two years, I was the recipient of philanthropy and had this life-changing, educational, eye-opening experience. And then that continued for a few more years of my education. I went to St. Andrews University, and in my third year, my junior year at St. Andrews, I was the recipient of a philanthropic scholarship again, this time funded by the St. Andrews Society of Philadelphia, so more like a giving circle of businessmen, and maybe some women, in Philadelphia who had Scottish connections and every year they funded someone to come over from St. Andrews to study at the University of Pennsylvania. Again, all expenses paid, university tuition, health care, flights, it’s extraordinary. And then later on, for my master’s, I went to the LSE, London School of Economics in London, and I had a half scholarship funded by Marks and Spencers, the clothing company.
So in the period of about 10 years of my life, I had these three extraordinary educational opportunities funded by an individual philanthropist, by a group of individuals, and by a company. So this of course made me curious, why are these people willing to help someone they don’t know? Do they realize what a difference they’ve made to my life? Does it happen elsewhere? You know, what’s going on? So I started to have all these questions about what philanthropy was and gradually then moved into the world of studying it. I studied anthropology, and gift giving is quite a key part of that. And then my first job after university was as a fundraiser, and being on the other side of asking, the giving, so that was my entry into it, quite experiential.
RO: That’s such an interesting story because your success and your attachment to philanthropy is the success of philanthropy as well. It goes both ways. I’m sure Marks and Spencers and Sir Maurice Laing, if I remembered the name correctly, would be incredibly proud of the impact that their philanthropy made. But you also drew – and I kind of see charity and philanthropy being related but not the same, and I want to ask you about that. I mean, I think of charity and compassion as a human impulse, and I hope it will forever be with us. It is, after all, part of human nature. But philanthropy as we talk about it now is more about the construct of philanthropy. The institution of philanthropy. And all institutions come with their pros and cons. So what do you think when you are asked the question, or you hear the question, is philanthropy relevant?
BB: Well, to address the question first about the connection between charity and philanthropy, I think in the UK we use the word charity as a noun. A charity is what you probably call a non-profit organization. So I suppose it’s not just – and we do also use it as charity, being charitable and caring. But I – one of the paradoxes that I see in all of these debates is that people quite like non-profit organizations, or charities as we call them, they’re quite in favour. They have a lot of public trust, people generally think positively of them. If you do public attitudes polling, as I have, people say, “Yeah, charities, non-profits are good for society.” You know, they’re great. What they don’t like so much is philanthropists, the people funding them. And I find that very paradoxical. It’s illogical really, to like the things that donors fund but not like the donors. And of course, charities and non-profits have other sources of income: they trade, they have membership fees, they get money from foundations, from corporate. They have all kinds of sources, but one of their sources – every non-profit, would like to have more individual donors and more individual major donors. So you’ve got this contradiction really, where the non-profits are keen to have the philanthropists and yet the public are worried about philanthropists. Okay, so, just to say that that’s where I see the link between the two that we can’t be, you know, be grateful for charities and think they’re a good part of the fabric of civil society but deny them an income source. That seems to me illogical.
And when I hear the question, is philanthropy relevant? I can’t think of a time when it could be more relevant. We are living in a time of multiple crises. The social justice crisis, racial crisis, the climate crisis, obviously, and the health crisis we all have been living through, still living through in some parts of the world, with COVID. In Europe, we have a war, we have an international relations, a political crisis. In multiple crises, all of which are hugely affecting quality of life, causing an existential threat to us all, if we think of the climate crisis. These are all huge, huge problems. Why would we not rally whatever means we can have to try and tackle them? I don’t suggest for a minute that philanthropy can single-handedly solve any of these crises, but we know that if we look at the whole spectrum of non-profit organizations that receive philanthropic funding and the kind of causes that philanthropists are interested in, they do align quite well with those causes. There’s a long-standing interest of donors in healthcare and education and poverty, in international peace, peace endowments, these are all things that fit quite naturally with things that philanthropists have done. So is philanthropy relevant? Yes, it’s very relevant now. It always has been, and I can’t quite imagine a situation where we wouldn’t encourage and embrace the private initiative to try and help in whatever way to tackle these huge crises.
RO: So your research found that the respondents disliked the donor. Is that a reflection, possibly, of what we are, I think, possibly seeing in Canada as well? A pushback against elites, a pushback against people who are perceived to control society in different ways and then use, you know, some money to fund good causes, or is there something more substantive at the heart of possibly thinking about philanthropists as a burden and not as a benefit?
BB: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that there’s a narrative that’s got louder. It’s always been there, it’s not the case that philanthropists were ever entirely lauded and celebrated, where everyone said how marvellous they were. There’s always been a concern. And the concern is usually about donor motivation. That’s what people worry about. So centuries ago, it would be, “Oh, they’re just giving because they want to get into heaven,” or “They’re just giving so they can hobnob with royalty” or so they can be the big person in town. So there’s always been that concern about social climbing, about the pursuit of salvation. A concern that philanthropy is about social control, I mean, this is a very familiar historic theme that, you know, “Keep the people placated with breads and circuses and then we can carry on, the elite can carry on enjoying life and the people will not rise up because you’ve given them just enough to keep them happy.” So just enough health, just enough education.
So these are not new criticisms, that philanthropy is a tool of control and a plaything for the elite. And they’re completely reasonable concerns and worries, but they’re not new. But in recent years, these concerns have been rediscovered and amplified as if no one had ever noticed before that by being a big donor, you might get some influence or you might get to network with certain people or what have you.
So I think in recent years, the word philanthropy and philanthropists have just raised concern across, you know, a large sector of the population. Not just a couple of academics, sitting writing Marxist or Gramsci treaties, worrying about sort of social control, but the person in the street, my colleagues, my neighbours would say, “Oh, philanthropy, isn’t that just a tax dodge? Oh, isn’t that just people who behave badly trying to cover up that bad behaviour? Isn’t it just egotists who want their name all over everything?” And I just personally find that very sad because as I say, it should be about love of humankind. It should be about people who are seeing need and wanting to do something about it. In addition to voting for the parties that they think can solve it at a grander scale. And there are, of course, many, many other ways of making the world better. But philanthropy is something we can all do every day. We don’t have to wait for the next general election or the next opportunity to express ourselves at the ballot box. We can do something right here and now about a problem that concerns us.
So it does make me sad that philanthropy’s reputation has been damaged. And that’s why I wanted to write the book In Defence of Philanthropy because I just felt it needed articulating that whilst, you know, it can be quite an interesting academic exercise to point out these problems, philanthropy is not just something abstract. It’s something real, and real people are depending on it, for vaccines, depending on it for food or for shelter, for opportunities in life, for education. We need to be very careful that we don’t undermine something and remove opportunities to help without having something else in place to substitute for. We risk undermining something very precious.
RO: So you’ve opened up lots of windows that I could climb through, but I’m also mindful of time, because I could definitely talk to you for hours. So, let me try as best as I can to situate you in the conversation on philanthropy here in Canada. In Canada, in the last two or three years, there’s been a crescendo of rage and outrage about the inequities and injustices perpetrated on Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and Canada’s racial minorities, in particular Black communities. And there has been research, which is reliable, that tells us that Indigenous communities and Black communities receive less than 1% of charitable giving in Canada, less than 1%, when their need is likely really high. So how do you correlate that with the defence of philanthropy, as you are doing? Understanding you’re not Canadian, and you don’t feel as intensely as we do what is happening in our land. But still, how can philanthropy in the context of these crises that you have delineated, how can it find new relevance?
BB: Thank you, I think that’s a hugely important question. And I think it’s really important for me to clarify that a defence of philanthropy doesn’t mean that everything is fine in the world of philanthropy, and that the distribution of funding is perfect or that the amounts given are perfect. By no means is that what I mean. Philanthropy is fallible because people are fallible. It is not perfect, but it is improvable rather than illegitimate. And I think some of the critics, even if they don’t say, “We want an end to philanthropy,” that is the logical endpoint. If you say it undermines democracy, if you say it causes more harm than good, and if you say it’s an inexcusable use of power, you’re talking about something you don’t want to exist. You’re not saying, “Oh, it can be improved and tweaked.”
So that’s my argument, is against people who are talking philanthropy out of existence. It’s not saying every donor is marvellous, every philanthropic gift is well-timed and well-placed. So the example you gave there, about less than 1% of funding going to such an important area, the answer is then to change that, to improve that, to educate donors to show where the need is, how the money could be spent, what will be a fairer distribution, so we can improve philanthropy. And in fact, if we want to make that our rallying call, we’ll find common cause with philanthropists.
In my research career, I interview major donors, that’s my main type of research that I do, and I’ve never met a donor yet who thinks that their giving is perfect. Who says, “I’ve got it sussed, it’s all good, I know exactly what I’m doing.” They’re really interested in being educated, in learning, in being engaged with the world, in finding out how to get the most bang for their philanthropic dollar and engaging with these issues. I could spend my whole time attending conferences about how to improve trust in philanthropy, how to do participatory grantmaking, community-centred giving, decolonizing philanthropy. I think the critics of philanthropy don’t realize that many – I’m not saying all – but many philanthropists are pretty educated, engaged, and caring people and they want to give better, and they know they’re not giving perfectly now. So we can we make common cause with them. We can say, “Okay, let’s work together. You said there’s some research there. Let’s share our research. Let’s talk about what can be done.” And you know, there’s a lot of hope; some of the younger donors in particular are organizing and trying to improve their giving and become justice funders, for example, will be one way they describe themselves. They might not even use the word philanthropist and might talk about being a partner or an ally, or showing solidarity with communities and so on.
So I see a huge amount of improvement going on and desire for improvement and a long way still to go, of course. And what makes me sad about the critics is that they will throw out these points about all philanthropy being an exercise in power or money being tainted or whatever it might be. Then I say, “Okay, you know, but do you see – what improvements do you see that you are pleased with? Could you mention any?” They can’t, they don’t seem to be aware, that there is a recognition that things could improve. And I don’t know whether that’s because they don’t know about it, or they’re not willing to give any credit there, but I just wish they could see how busy the world of philanthropy is in trying to improve.
RO: That is fascinating because you know, we’re caught up in this conversation and trying really hard to find our way out of it. So with your conversations with donors, an example would really help. How a philanthropist, and they shall remain nameless, of course, is trying to reset how he or she does work. I mean, obviously, the best example would be Melinda Gates, I think – I mean, that’s pretty transformational – but there must be some example that you can give us that is a point of light?
BB: Sure. When I was speaking about the book and one of the early book-launch-type events, there was a panel with a number of philanthropists and this gentleman spoke before me, and he spoke at length about how he was a philanthropist. He enjoyed giving money. And that’s the other thing people often miss, philanthropists enjoy it, they get satisfaction, and they want to do it well because it’s important to them. But he also said, “I also think I should pay more tax, I like paying tax, my tax pays for schools, pays for hospitals,” – you know, we’re very proud of the National Health Service in Britain, it’s really been needed more than ever during the COVID crisis. And he said, “I don’t think I pay enough tax. I think the system is wrong in this country.” There’s also groups of philanthropists in other countries who make this point. The Patriotic Millionaires in the US, for example, led by Abigail Disney, who are saying, “Tax us more, we should be well taxed.” So there are plenty of philanthropists saying things like that. Philanthropy isn’t instead of paying tax, it’s as well as, and we have the capacity to pay more. So he made his speech and that was great and he got a clap. And then I was up next, or the one after next, and I gave my defence of philanthropy, and the first question that I got from the floor was, “Well, Beth, that’s all well and good, defending philanthropy, but shouldn’t they just pay more tax?” And they got a big clap, the person who said that. And I thought, did anybody listen to the philanthropist who spoke directly before me? Because it was obviously much more powerful coming from him because he was the giver and he was saying he did it. And this is what I mean about people clinging to their criticism of philanthropy. They want to believe that if you believe in philanthropy, you are therefore anti-tax, that you are small state and that you think philanthropy should take over and run everything, and I worry that they’re not listening to either what the people like myself are saying who write about it but also what the donors themselves are saying.
Other examples would be philanthropists, many of whom don’t like the word. They say, “I’m not a philanthropist, I’m a partner.” I get funding for my centre from somebody who only ever talks about us as partners. They say, “We have the money, you have the expertise.” And again, I think that’s something that the critics don’t understand. But actually, the donors need us, if they want to find a cure for cancer, they are not themselves medically trained. They need to work with the scientists and the organizations who can do that. So they are partners. It’s not a one-way power relationship. So yeah, there are many examples like this where people are using different kinds of language, trying to offer a pushback against the criticisms, but for whatever reason, people are quite keen to view, to deride, philanthropists as just, as I say, “tax dodging idiots,” and I find that so unhelpful.
RO: I personally think that we could spend a little bit more time rethinking language, you know, because philanthropy has come down the ages to us and it’s imagined and perceived another way. Perhaps, you know, we need new language for new times. That will be a subject for another podcast, but let’s stick with something you said, which is about the ballot box. And, you know, I’m a politician, and I am not an elected politician, but I know how hard politicians have to work to get elected and to fulfill their promises. And if we like what they do, we elect them in, and if we don’t like what they do, we elect them out. Philanthropy, on the other hand, even though, and in your country as in mine, philanthropists get, you know, they get tax protection and tax relief for their investments in philanthropy. We can’t really vote them in and out. And yet, this is some of the thinking here in Canada, yet they’re working with public money, which is held in private hands. How do you reimagine accountability, so that philanthropists can regain the trust, if I may say, of the people and the body politic?
BB: Well, before we talk about improvements, we should talk about what’s already in place because people imagine philanthropy to be an entirely unregulated sort of Wild West and it’s not. I mean, all the laws under which philanthropy and non-profits work are decided by elected people or politicians of all kinds. So they’re not – philanthropists are not above the law. I mean, yes, of course, when you have money, you have power, you have power to do all kinds of things: buy the biggest house on the street, send your kids to private school, you know, fly business class, so you can do things that other people who don’t have money can’t do. And we can’t pretend that that’s unique to philanthropy. You know, having money is the issue. And I think it’s worth saying at this point that a lot of times the criticisms of philanthropy are actually criticisms about wealth and inequality, but they get mixed up. I think they are misfired. The only rich people most people know are philanthropists, so they attack them. And actually, that’s just a bonus for all the non-giving rich who are quietly enjoying all the money from sales and privately consuming and not giving, but nobody knows them, so they’re not hassled and, you know, subject to abuse on social media in the way that philanthropists are.
So I think it’s important to remember that, although they can’t be voted in and out of office, they are still subject to the same rules and regulations and laws as everyone else that are made by those who are ruled in and out of office. So if, for example, people wanted to remove the tax break for charities, they could do that; that is a democratically decided decision. The size of that tax break is decided democratically and it really varies a lot across the world. But however small it is or even non-existent, which it is in some countries, people still give. Which I think helps answer the question, do they only give? It also will be slightly innumerate to give for the tax break. And let’s say it’s 50% just to make the math easy. If I want to give a £1 million, it will cost me £500,000. And yes, it’s been topped up to two million, but I’m still half a million down on the deal. I didn’t benefit, I didn’t enrich myself by that, and I think people often don’t quite get the maths of it, that unless the tax break was 101%, which it never would be, you can’t come out of the deal up on it. So you know, they are subject to these rules.
The power issue though, I think, again, going back to that example of, you know, you have – one person gives and one person accepts. We don’t have to accept the gifts of a donor. If we find that donor to be repugnant in some way, we think their money’s tainted, we think they’re not a nice person or their motives are suspect. If we think they’ve got a bad idea, they’re asking our organization to do something that we don’t want to do, they’re trying to redirect our energies. We are in a position to say, “No thank you.” And that does happen. I mean, you wouldn’t make a song and dance of it and say, “Hey, guess what, someone tried to give us this money and we said no,” but it happens all the time. I study fundraising as well as donors; I see them as two sides of the same coin, giving and taking. And fundraisers, as with philanthropy, fundraisers are improving their gift-acceptance policies, their ethical guidelines, and they will not take donations that would be offensive or be inappropriate. This also isn’t new, by the way. One of my favourite stories in the book is when I talk about the Carnegie libraries, and everybody knows that Andrew Carnegie funded two and a half thousand libraries across the world. But what they don’t know is that 225 communities said, “No thank you.” They were offered one – and what he did was build the building, fill it with books, but the community had to provide the land and then commit to sustaining it afterwards. And 225 communities actually said, “No thank you,” either because they didn’t have the land or if they did, they wanted to put something else there or it wasn’t the biggest priority for them to have a library, or they didn’t want the burden of maintaining it indefinitely, or they didn’t like the man. They thought he was, you know, his employment practices were wrong, or they just had some issue with him as a person. And they had every right to do that, to say no, and that continues today. So just because you’ve got a big wad of cash, you can’t force a non-profit or community to accept your money. So I think we can overplay the power issue. Donors do not have a singular power to do things. It’s always a partnership between somebody giving the money to somebody, taking it and then spending it, and if you don’t like the donor, don’t take the money.
RO: So I think I hear that you are hopeful. I can definitely hear that in your comments. That you are hopeful that both sides, the givers and the takers, surrounded by lawmakers and society, will find a way forward. But is there an instance where you’re not hopeful? Where you are feeling a little less than positive, let’s say, about what is unfolding?
BB: So I am hopeful and that’s because I’ve seen the power that philanthropy can do. You know, people are alive today, communities are thriving today, people have had education because of philanthropy, so you can’t but be hopeful when you see the good it can do. But I don’t mind admitting I’m also quite frustrated and even sometimes a bit angry about the way philanthropists are painted because it’s so self-defeating to knock big donors. I try to break down the different kinds of critiques, and I’ve got a lot more time for the more thoughtful critiques when people are genuinely, understandably worried about the impact of philanthropy on, say, democracy. Let’s have those conversations. Let’s think that through. I’m always happy to engage in that. That will be a sort of academic critique of philanthropy. But when you get to the populist critiques: “I just don’t like that man, he’s an idiot.” You even get, you know, “His ears are so big. He’s, you know, he’s ugly. He’s been through a messy divorce. He dresses badly.” You know, mocking people. “Look at – you know, who does he think he is?” I’ve got no time for that kind of critique, it’s ad hominem. It’s just generic. It’s about the donor, the person, rather than their donation. It’s none of our business, you know, what they dress, what they look like, how they live their private lives, if they want to donate money. There are many examples of this; there’s one in the book where one of the donors was described as having the “jug-eared face of a Division II basketball coach.” And this man had just given huge sums of money to an organization, which actually helped people who had been wrongly convicted, helped them get released from prison very successfully, was being mocked for how he looks. That makes me frustrated and angry because that’s just knocking philanthropy for almost, just for sport.
I also get very frustrated and angry by the gendered dimensions of all of this. You know, most of the philanthropists we’ve heard of are male, but of course, money is held collectively in couples and families. And when a female philanthropist does emerge, there’s often a lot of comment about, again, how she looks, who she dates, her behaviour. I mean, whoever hears the name MacKenzie Scott without hearing, you know, divorced spouse of Jeff Bezos. Like, what’s that got to do with anything? You know, now she’s a philanthropist in her own right, but she’s always defined by that relationship. And even some of the coverage of her giving talks about it as a giving spree designed to show up her ex-husband, as if it’s kind of part of her marital spat to make him look bad when she’s given away nine billion in the last 18 months or so. So that kind of populist attack – and you know, populism, you know this as a politician, populism is a cancer on society at the moment. It offers incredibly simple explanations for incredibly complex scenarios. And it’s appealing, it’s tempting, because people like simple explanations, but we need to resist them. We need to push back and say no, philanthropy is a lot more nuanced and complex than that. And you can’t just say, “I don’t like that person” or “They’re an idiot.” We need to actually think carefully about this. So that’s the kind of stuff that makes me angry and frustrated.
RO: And I think that would make anyone angry or frustrated. I’m one of those who – I’m often frustrated with philanthropy and the way it is constructed in Canada, and I’ve compared it to the United States, the UK, and Australia. In Canada, we’re really behind the eight ball because our legislation has not kept pace with time, definitely not with jurisdictions that are similar to ours. But, you know, I want to ask you whether this substantive versus populist critique is an expression of the time and it will pass, or do you think it is here to stay unless philanthropy expresses its mission differently?
BB: That’s a great question. And I think philanthropy does need to express itself better and explain what it does and just point out its positive impact and push back. I was amazed no one wrote a defence of philanthropy before I did, because most of the people I knew in the world of philanthropy have the same thoughts and ideas and conversations that we’re having now. But it was kind of done quietly in the bar after a talk when somebody else stood up and really, really criticized philanthropy. And we’d all sit there and clap politely. Maybe that’s a very British thing to do. We clap politely, and then we go into the pub and we go, “Well that’s obviously not true.” You know, not that it’s not true; it’s exaggerated, it’s over-blown. There’s always a kernel of truth in critique, it’s just whether or not on balance one wishes to emphasize the smaller problems rather than the greater good, so I think that’s what I found curious.
So yes, I would absolutely love it if this was just the first of many defences of philanthropy. I do understand that if you are an individual major philanthropist yourself, it’s quite hard to push back because nobody’s going to feel sorry for you. You’ve got clearly a very charmed life, you know, things are going good for you. If you say, “Oh, it’s so mean to say that,” which is what that one guy said: “Who cares what my ears look like?” But he’s a very rare example, that one. And Melinda French Gates, actually, is the only other philanthropist I can think of, on the record. And it was a very passing comment, said when she was visiting Australia: someone asked her about the attacks on philanthropy, and she said, ‘I don’t think they are attacks on philanthropy, I think they are attacks on wealth,” and I think she’s right. I just wish she’d say that more often and more loudly and that other donors would also join that. But most donors I know – and as I say, this is what I spend my life, I love the research I do, I get to meet a lot of these very generous individuals, and they are frustrated. They say it’s not fair. “You know, I’m not giving for the tax break. But I understand why people say – I’m not going to argue in public. It’s just not, I’m not going to do that.” So I do understand why they can’t. And I’m not really here arguing for their sake, either. You know, it’s not because I think they’re very thin skinned and I’m worried about them. They’re fine, they’ll be all right. Those who are already giving will carry on giving because they know the good it does and they know how much joy it brings them.
The reason I’m making this argument is twofold. One is for the philanthropists who are not philanthropists yet, the people who haven’t made their money or haven’t inherited. I worry that when they come into that wealth, they won’t see philanthropy as a viable option. They’ll think that, you know, “Isn’t philanthropy what you do if you need to redeem your reputation? Isn’t philanthropy what you do if you’re a bit of an idiot?” Or “Isn’t it just all more trouble than it’s worth? Whatever I do, people are going to knock me down,” so I’m worried about the future supply of philanthropists. But even more, I’m worried about the organizations that are dependent on philanthropy. And that’s when my study of fundraisers comes into the picture. They need more, not less, philanthropy. And so while we’re all having this, you know, enjoyable kind-of Oxford Union debate about the merits of philanthropy, meanwhile, they are hard at work trying to raise funds to cure cancer, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless; this is a real immediate need for them. And they don’t have the luxury of indulging in these debates. So that’s my main concern. If we knock philanthropy, we make fundraising even harder than it already is.
RO: That was a spirited defence of philanthropy, Beth. When is the next book coming out?
BB: My next book is actually about advising philanthropists. I’m coming to the end of that manuscript now. And again, maybe it’s part of explaining the complexity of the world. People don’t just wake up in the morning, say, “Oh, I know, I’ll give 10 million to some random cause.” They clearly put a lot of thought into it, they hire advisors and conduct research and work to spend that money well. And the world of philanthropy advising is really not very well known. So myself and my colleague Emma Beeston are working on a book. We interviewed philanthropy advisors all over the world, including Canada, Australia, India. This is a mysterious, secretive almost, industry, but it’s a part of the professional advisors that many wealthy people have and they turn to for support for their giving. So the next book is more of a description. I’m not making an argument, really, I’m just trying to explain how philanthropy advising works.
RO: We will certainly look forward to that. Beth, those are all the questions I have for today and we’re kind of running out of time. But is there a last reflection you’d like to share or something you’d like to ask me?
BB: Well, I think – well, I’d love to ask you, but that will be probably another hour. But I think in terms of wrapping up this, you know, the defence and, you know, I’m sure that there are critics who will come on to your podcast who will make really good articulate arguments about the problems of philanthropy. And, you know, they’ll be valid to some extent, and I’ll agree with them, but I suppose what I would ask the listeners to consider is would you prefer a world with philanthropy or a world without philanthropy? What would a world without philanthropy be like? Who would suffer most? It wouldn’t be the donors; they’d find other things to spend the money on. A world without philanthropy would harm those most in need of that help, who of course also want to get it from government, but there are certain things that currently are funded by philanthropy, supported by philanthropy. And a world without philanthropy seems to me obviously worse than one with, so why would we quash the giving impulse? I’ll just ask people to consider that question when they’re considering the merits and problems of philanthropy.
RO: So that is, those are questions for us to chew on while we wait for our next podcast, which will be coming shortly. In the meantime, thank you so much, Beth, for this wonderful chat with me today. And hopefully, this will lead to much thinking and reflection, and maybe even another chat with you once you complete your next book. And to our listeners I will say, stay tuned, because philanthropy is at a crossroads.