Does philanthropy have too much influence? A scholar’s perspective

Noomi Weinryb

The September issue of Alliance grapples with a central dilemma of philanthropy: to what extent should philanthropists influence government policy? When, if ever, does this influence become problematic? Within research on philanthropy, the answer to this question can be related to two sharply contrasting views on the potential benefits and harms of philanthropy.

A pluralistic view considers philanthropists’ policy influence as a contribution to a democratically sound society. As Joel Fleishman puts it: ‘What could possibly be more beneficial for the entire world than a powerful passion to do good for others, a relentless determination to do it well, and a keen sense of responsibility to make oneself continually accountable for achieving one’s goals?’[1] On the contrary, thinkers such as Joan Roelofs who examine power structures in society describe philanthropists’ policy influence as detrimental and damaging to democracy. From this perspective, ‘foundations are prime constructors of hegemony, by which is meant that they act to promote consent, and its corollary, to prevent effective dissent against capitalist democracy’.[2]

The current issue of Alliance displays a variety of intriguing contributions on the complex topic of philanthropists’ influence. Alliance editor Charles Keidan and guest editors of the September issue, Ingrid Srinath and Bhekinkosi Moyo offer up international perspectives that transcend most of the current research, which is highly focused on the United States. Moving beyond a dichotomous view of the beneficial or detrimental nature of philanthropists’ policy influence, the contributors provide a nuanced description of this multifaceted subject. I will here offer a brief analysis of the main themes I see in the issue, as well as some of my own reflections.

Divergent views of the state and philanthropy
Is the state safeguarding a democracy that may be challenged by philanthropists? Or is it the other way around, with philanthropists promoting a democracy that may very well be challenged by the state? The plurality of voices and perspectives highlights fundamentally different perspectives on the role of the state. If the state is perceived to be safeguarding democracy, then the policy influence of the wealthy may very well be putting democracy at risk. Conversely, in a politically precarious situation, the financial support of philanthropists may promote essential initiatives that enable democratic development and open society. Depending on the context, the influence of the wealthy over policy may both promote and hamper democracy. In liberal democratic regimes, perhaps we need more state and less philanthropy? In autocratic regimes, do we need more philanthropy and less state?

The different roles of philanthropy echo the research literature on the topic. For example, civil society organizations may operate independently, work as complements to government or engage in an adversarial relationship with government.[3] These diverse roles of civil society in relation to the state may very well be applied also to the questions raised by philanthropists’ policy influence.

Most contributors argue that philanthropists could and should exert policy influence to promote the legal infrastructure of civil society. But should philanthropists have a policy agenda beyond promoting philanthropy’s own infrastructure? Several authors raise the topic of philanthropists being too focused on service delivery and too little engaged with human rights. For example Amitabh Behar in India and Halima Mahomed in South Africa describe situations where philanthropists do not use their full capacity to promote democracy. Instead they are bogged down by supplementing the state in service provision. The same reasoning can also be seen in Turkey where Liana Varon describes the dilemmas of philanthropy in a fragile political context.

Beyond purely legal requirements, most scholars agree that philanthropists are not very accountable as a group.[4] However, philanthropists still tend to be similar in their understanding of themselves and their role in the society in which they engage, which may provide a form of peer accountability. [5] The accountability of philanthropists, as I see it, is  highly contextual.

Should philanthropists hold the government to account? Or should philanthropists themselves be accountable to the government? Several contributors offered takes on this dilemma.

In a thought-provoking interview, Indian philanthropist Rohini Nilekani argues that wealth comes with responsibilities to society, and that the wealthy must be held accountable. John Harvey writes that philanthropy should promote government accountability and hold the government accountable whereas Ata Kuttab wonders if philanthropy’s accountability should face society at large rather than the government.

These issues are further complicated when philanthropists seek to exert policy influence internationally. Such influence and its democratic clout does not depend only on local conditions, but also on the nature of the transnational gifts. Andrés Thompson discusses the implications of the Netherlands-based Bernard van Leer Foundation influencing policy on riverine blindness in Brazil. Tendai Murisa writes about the dependence on foreign philanthropy. In addition, many models of how to build a strong local philanthropy may still be western in origin. Gerry Salole, the CEO of the European Foundation Centre (EFC), highlights this in relation to the EFC’s peer learning work with Chinese philanthropists.

When is philanthropic influence problematic?
The September issue highlights some more clearly problematic expressions of philanthropy. The short text on astroturfing is such an example, and so is Halima Mahomed’s examples of how philanthropy is sometimes used to whitewash business interests. Mahomed, however, makes the case that philanthropists can use the influence channels of business to change policy and promote democracy. Linsey McGoey also offers a critical take on philanthropists’ attempts at policy influence, highlighting the risks of group think that follow trends such as for example philanthrocapitalism. She also raises the question of whether covert policy influence through philanthropic means is democratically acceptable. Here Rohini Nilekani makes an interesting distinction between emotional philanthropy being legitimately anonymous, whereas strategic philanthropy should be overt, with donors being held accountable for their gifts.

Towards collective philanthropy?
An interesting subtheme in the issue is the tension between the drive for stronger collective organizing of philanthropy and the risk those very features may pose for democracy. Does collective organizing counteract the pluralistic virtues of philanthropy, especially in countries where donors are few and large? I view philanthropists’ lack of accountability as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the lack of accountability enables a freedom to act in a radical and innovative manner. On the other hand, that swiftness and freedom means that philanthropists do not follow any standardized democratic procedure. In line with Joanne Florino’s argument I believe that the more pluralistic and polyarchic philanthropic influence is, the more it can be reconciled with democracy.

There’s the rub. Initiatives to increase philanthropy’s effectiveness such as evidence-based practice, objective metrics and philanthrocapitalism may make it more efficient but also more uniform. These efforts could turn philanthropy from a polyarchy into a concentrated and influential vehicle for social change placed in the hands of the most rich and powerful. When it comes to promoting greater ‘collective impact’ in philanthropy, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.

Dr Noomi Weinryb researches philanthropy and public policy and is based at the Department of Business Studies of Uppsala University and the Academy of Public Administration at Södertörn University, Sweden. Email

Lead image: A scene from Shakespeare’s Tempest by George Romney.


  1. ^ J Fleishman (2009) The Foundation: A great American secret; how private wealth is changing the world. New York: Public Affairs (p354).
  2. ^ J Roelofs (2003) Foundations and public policy: the mask of pluralism. Albany: State University of New York Press (p198).
  3. ^ D R Young (2000) ‘Alternative models of government-nonprofit sector relations: theoretical and international perspectives’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 29(1): (p149).
  4. ^ P Frumkin (2006) Strategic giving: The art and science of philanthropy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. ^ N Weinryb (2015) Free to Conform: A comparative study of philanthropists’ accountability. PhD thesis, Uppsala University Department of Business Studies, Uppsala.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

Philanthropy Australia conference: is philanthropy future ready?

Alliance magazine