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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Philanthropy in the United States is overwhelmingly dominated by white men. I don’t suppose anyone is surprised by this, but a recent internet search put it in stark terms. A Forbes article from 2013 picturing the top fifty philanthropists in the US neatly captured the face of this reality. Of the fifty photographs, only one is of a woman by herself. All the rest are men, all white, a few accompanied by female spouses or family members.

Anyone who has studied anything about race in this country knows about white male privilege. Race and gender tilt the playing field dramatically around employment, education, social group access, etc. These pics should serve as reassurance to the Tea Party folk that, contrary to their fears, white male privilege remains alive and well in this country.

I don’t mean to demonize white men. After all, I’m one of their clan (with gray hair like most of the men in the pictures). My philanthropic gifts fall somewhere below the top fifty ranking, but otherwise I am advantaged by the same privileges that accrue to our race and gender. And many of us do good things! But as wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of an elite 1% in this country, so too does philanthropic capacity and philanthropic giving. And that is cause for concern. Why?

First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of the public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few. In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives, including the social safety net, as well as traditional worker empowerment, in favor of a benevolent paternalism. Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad public purposes. Scholar Lester Salamon calls this “philanthropic insufficiency.”

In good economic times, this might be acceptable if the people making philanthropic decisions truly reflected the racial, class, and experiential diversity of the country. But of course, as the pics of the top fifty demonstrate, they don’t. So the rich organizations and their programs get richer, particularly those arts, health, and educational institutions where white male elites have long standing familial or social engagement. Salamon calls this “philanthropic particularlism,” the tendency for givers to focus on particular groups that appear to be “deserving.” But of course that calculation is significantly colored – let’s use this term deliberately – by social location. And we’re back to the gender and race of the top fifty pics.

And this leads to the third dimension of voluntary failure, “philanthropic paternalism.” The current philanthropic culture increasingly empowers donors with decision making. It’s the way it works today. Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas. As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated, and the use of donations increasingly managed in hands on way by donor expectations, money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals who, often by virtue of nothing more than the fact of their wealth, assume an expertise to which the public must bow.

The answer to this is not to suppress charitable giving. Rather it is to ensure that in our democracy there is a robust public sector representing the broad and varied constituencies of our society controlled by a truly democratic, inclusive process. Yet it is this very sector that is under relentless assault. Private philanthropy is currently driving much of the educational policy of the country. Recent reports, for example, reveal the growing influence of private philanthropy in basic medical and scientific research at precisely the same time public spending on basic research is being curtailed. The list could go on and on.

Twenty-eight hundred years ago the prophet Isaiah warned against this concentration of wealth and its attendant concentration of philanthropic control. “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.” The church may have a stake in encouraging generosity for all kinds of reasons. But it is no contradiction to warn, at the same time, that generosity controlled by the few can be used to further narrow self-interested agendas rather than the public good.

Those who have done well often want to do good, a “good” that is often bleached by more than a little self-interest. But when the ranks of those who have done well reflect the history of privilege in this country, a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion should question how evenly distributed is the “good” they seek to bestow. And it should prompt us to defend the public sector as a critical counterbalance to a self-reinforcing privilege.

John H. Thomas
July 17, 2014

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