Philanthropists | Philanthropy

Not all philanthropists are good. But that doesn’t make philanthropy bad

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  January 27, 2023 by Rebecca Richards

$196 billion is quite a sum. According to Forbes, $196 billion is also the grand total given by the top 25 philanthropists over their lifetimes. Readers will recognize many of the names on the list, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and MacKenzie Scott, as both the heroes and the villains of our society, depending on one’s perspective.

Philanthropy has always had skeptics, as any field involving billions of dollars and potentially enormous public influence should. Hypercriticism of philanthropists, however, does not bode well for nonprofit organizations and individuals who rely on charitable giving. So argues sociologist Beth Breeze in her 2021 book, In Defence of Philanthropy.

Breeze, who directs the Global Challenges Doctoral Centre and the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, writes that “criticism is now at an unprecedented level, and its amplification by moral grandstanding on social media risks undermining the whole enterprise of philanthropy, rather than correcting specific problematic cases.”

Criticism itself is not the issue. Generalized cynicism about the field, however, will negatively affect more than the reputation of billionaire philanthropists.

Breeze identifies three critiques about giving: the academic, the insider, and the populist. The academic critique calls giving undemocratic because there is limited public oversight of philanthropy but extensive tax benefits. The insider critique argues that giving is misdirected; it should be targeting social justice rather than the interests of a self-selecting elite. The populist critique suspects nefarious motives behind philanthropy and that giving is really taking in disguise.

Is giving categorically undemocratic? Or can philanthropy serve as a source of outside accountability that is necessary in a democracy? Philanthropy operates within rules, including tax laws, that were determined by the public. Breeze warns against comparing “an idealized version of democracy with the messy reality of philanthropy.” Instead, philanthropy and democracy should be seen as dynamic concepts. Philanthropy can change, and has changed, as needed to improve the process of democracy. They may be uneasy allies, but they are far from mortal enemies.

Underlying the insider critique is the assumption that philanthropy ought to be solely, or primarily, focused on reducing inequality and solving poverty — “despite there being no historical precedent or legal obligation for philanthropy to be solely directed at this one goal,” as Breeze writes. Social issues are a vital part of philanthropy, but historically, philanthropy has included the arts and culture, religious organizations, and a myriad of other causes. The insider critique measures philanthropy based on goals it did not set out to accomplish and something at which even the most well-funded governments have failed.

The populist critique points to charges of hypocrisy, hidden interests (such as tax avoidance), and potential material benefits for donors. The personal lives of donors are of more interest than the details of their giving. Breeze points to MacKenzie Scott as an example, whose emergence in philanthropy was treated by the press as revenge against her ex-husband, Jeff Bezos, rather than a genuine desire to do good. While large-scale philanthropy receives intense criticism, the media also uplift examples of ordinary people doing good, which leads Breeze to ask, “At precisely what size bank balance does the capacity to be altruistic cease?”

In Defence of Philanthropy is exceptional because Breeze communicates scholarly work, statistics, and history with ease. She situates each critique of philanthropy within its historical context, tracing the roots of the criticism in order to provide a nuanced, often witty, response. Yet, she is never dismissive of the criticisms leveled against philanthropy. Instead, her sense of humor allows the reader to take philanthropy more seriously by preventing the reader from leaping to conclusions or indulging in over-generalizations.

Throughout her book, Breeze is careful to emphasize that hypercriticism of philanthropy matters because should high-level donors, such as those on the Forbes list, choose to spend money on pursuits other than charity, the only people that will really hurt are the nonprofit organizations and those they serve. Breeze writes, “Like politics, philanthropy is imperfect, messy and complex, but it is better than a world without philanthropy.” However much we enjoy painting philanthropy as the villain, we should be more worried about having a society that chooses not to give.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on January 27, 2023.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More