Do we really want to entrust our futures to a growing group of benevolent dictators? Just asking …


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

The ‘Living with the Gates Foundation’ special feature in the September issue of Alliance  raises a number of questions about the influence of the Gates Foundation, arising from its unique size, scale and style. These relate to distortion of the fields the Gates Foundation works in; the power dynamics between Gates and other players, including other foundations; and accountability. While acknowledging the benefits of Gates’ massive expenditure on global health, several contributors express doubts about the domination of the global health agenda, the squeezing out of diverse approaches, and the difficulties of obtaining objective feedback.

Judging from a 12 October email from Ruth McCambridge, editor of the US-based Nonprofit Quarterly, NPQ has also been thinking about billionaire philanthropy ‘and the concerns of onlookers about the effects of that philanthropy on democracy’.  She notes that a lot of the concern has been focused on the Gates Foundation, ‘rightly or wrongly’, but this week their attention  was turning to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark school system, and the subsequent exclusion of parents from decision making.

Initially, it seems, Zuckerberg promised that Newark residents would be involved in deciding how the money was spent. But things are not turning out that way. According to Gregory Taylor, president and CEO of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which will be dispensing the Zuckerberg funds, which are to be matched by the city, ‘letting the people have their say is not how professional philanthropy works.’  ‘Where does the public fit when it comes to making funding decisions that affect those kids?’ asks author Cindy Gibson – a question that is echoed by McCambridge.  ‘Are these instances of billionaire philanthropy really tantamount to the very rich buying an inappropriate voice in the direction of public systems – which are intended to be accountable to the citizens they serve?’ she asks. ‘Are we placing critical components of communities in the category of pet projects of the very rich?’

Similar concerns are raised throughout the Alliance ‘Living with the Gates Foundation’ feature. ‘Endowed with large resources and influence, concerned with accomplishing good for all, and able to exert power – if this sounds like just what global health needs, it also sounds to a worrying degree like a dictator, albeit a benevolent one,’ write Laura Freschi and Alanna Shaikh.

With billionaire philanthropists on the increase (as Jacob Harold points out in an article to be published in the December issue of Alliance, Gates ‘is just one of tens of thousands of US foundations, including about 100 with more than a billion dollars in assets’) and playing an ever larger role in public life, do we really want to entrust our futures to a growing group of benevolent dictators? Just asking, as Ruth McCambridge puts it.

Comments (3)


A crucial question to ask, and I agree the answer is 'no'. If philanthropy is really love of humanity, and not just a form of ultra-consumerism, then it contains an inherent contradiction: a better world does not sit comfortably with growing extremes of wealth. And yet, it would seem churlish and counter-productive not to recognise and encourage those wealthy people who do choose to give money away, when many do not. For me, it is a little bit like companies that make efforts to be greener - you have to judge the picture in the round. If a company donates to environmental good causes, but does not change its core activities to reduce pollution and waste, then that activity is greenwash. If a philanthropist also calls for fair and progressive taxation, you know they are the real deal.

Prentice Zinn

No we don't. I just read, David Bosworth's very engaging critique of philanthrocapitalism: The Cultural Contradictions of Philanthrocapitalsm. What struck me from his analysis is that the problem is not only manifested in billionaire philanthropy but the field as a whole. My nonprofit colleagues fear that we've entered whole new era of pet projects of funders. We seem to be stumble-down drunk in our quantiphilia, idealization of markets, and goofball expectations of linearity in human progress. I think the underlying question posed by you and your colleagues is the most provocative. What would democracy in philanthropy look like?

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