Philanthropic power: the awkward consequence of pluralism

Adam Pickering

Philanthropy undoubtedly allows a small number of very wealthy individuals to exert a disproportionate amount of social, moral and political influence in society. I don’t think that anyone can make a reasonable argument which counters that assertion. What is left then is the question of whether we ought to limit this power and, if so, how we should go about doing so.

Addressing this question is important not merely on a philosophical level: with or without our involvement, this debate is driving policy on the regulation and tax treatment of philanthropy and civil society organizations around the world.

The case for limiting philanthropic power

Let us start with the case for limiting the power of philanthropy. The first charge is one that often comes from within philanthropy circles and civil society: that too often philanthropic money is used inefficiently or even wasted on undeserving causes or projects. The accusation is that philanthropists tend to give in ways that are either entirely self-serving (to gain prestige or favour) or skewed towards their area of interest rather than need. A whole cottage industry has developed around exposing the folly of prestige giving. Malcolm Gladwell has recently attracted a great many column inches for repeating a fairly obvious criticism of donors who choose to endow already wealthy elite academic institutions in the US rather than spread their generosity to colleges where donations would make a greater difference. Philanthropists are increasingly pilloried for duplicating efforts, failing to take risks or turning a blind eye to impact. These criticisms have merit. Moreover, I believe that it is healthy to challenge philanthropists to think more deeply about their giving.

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