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© Frank


Can Philanthropy be Democratic?

by Ben Soskis
May 4, 2021

This interview with Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, was conducted and condensed by franknews. 

Ben | I'm a historian of philanthropy by training. My work deals with how we can use historical inquiry to address philanthropic practice. More broadly, I also look at the intersection between philanthropy, democratic institutions, and democratic norms.

frank | What do you think has changed with philanthropic giving in recent years? 

If you take the long view, there has been dramatic changes in giving within the last 20 years or so, and most of those changes track the changes in the political economy more generally.

It's not surprising that as the distribution of wealth in the U.S. moves upwards, that is reflected in giving patterns.

The emergence of gigantic fortunes has translated into really, really big gifts by people that you would probably recognize: Bill Gates, Mackenzie Scott, Mark Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan. This was not the historical norm for long stretches of the past, in part, because the distribution of wealth has looked very different. There weren't as many really wealthy people who had that level of excess wealth to throw around. That has changed the landscape of philanthropy dramatically, and it's changed the way the public thinks about philanthropy. I think it is safe to say that the current moment is one in which the critical attention towards philanthropy is as pronounced as it's been in a century.

Most of that comes down to this debate between whether philanthropy is an expression of democracy or a threat to democracy. Do you think philanthropy is democratic? 

The easy answer is no.

Any system that gives really wealthy people more power than ordinary people is something of a threat to democracy.

I think the public is increasingly attuned to the fact that large gifts, even if done directly for the public good, can pose a threat to democracy. You can see even a sort of ritualized process where anytime a big gift is announced by a mega-donor, you can go on Twitter and within 30 seconds, someone will say, “just pay your taxes.” Sometimes it is not even that polite, there’s occasionally a guillotine involved.

But I think in order to really answer that question, we have to define what we mean by philanthropy. When most people talk about philanthropy, they are usually referring to large-scale monetary gifts. They are referring to a political economy in which wealthy people have a lot of money and are shaping the charitable landscape, I think it makes sense to have a term that refers to that distinctive type of giving.

However, that leaves out a lot of other types of giving. Philanthropy literally just means a love of mankind, so the definition of philanthropy can be expanded to include all sorts of generosity — including generosity that is not dependent on huge amounts of wealth.

If you take the first definition, you can focus on the inequalities inherent in elite giving. The fact that someone like Mark Zuckerberg has billions at his disposal, raises a whole host of questions about how resources are allocated and about how power is allocated. But if you expand the definition of philanthropy to say Mark Zuckerberg is a philanthropist, and so am I, and so is anybody who has talent or treasure or time to give, then you're democratizing the concept. I think that's important. Particularly within the last year, there has been a lot of attention on elite giving during the pandemic. But, in the pandemic we also saw a real explosion of smaller-scale giving by everyday people — some of it monetary, some of it in terms of volunteering, some of it in terms of mutual aid.

There is a growing tension between the recognition of the need to critique philanthropy and the next step. If you've established that there are ways in which some dimensions of philanthropy challenge democracy, what can philanthropy do to encourage democracy?

Do you feel like there is more clarity as to the answer to that question? 

If you listened to grantees, the people who are asking for money, their answer is very clear: fund the people closest to the problems that you're trying to address.

Some of these things sound really obvious to normal folks, but it's coming against a powerful countercurrent, which is the idea that entrepreneurs, by virtue of the fact that they've accumulated large sums of money, can apply their competencies to a wide variety of problems. These problems are sometimes entirely distant from the things that made them their money in the first place. This thinking has informed a lot of philanthropy in recent decades. 

Right. It is this idea they have lingering wisdom about anything and everything. 

Yes. It is a belief if you've made your money in an app, then you have a certain approach to the world that will allow you to “hack” the solution to some other problem. 

In much of the second half of the 20th century, most wealthy people just didn't focus a lot on how to give away their money. Maybe you created a foundation in the final years of your life, but it was almost an afterthought for a lot of folks. 

The creation of an entrepreneurial ethos, which the Bay Area and the tech industry had a lot to do with, reoriented the idea about what the role of a giver was. 

In some ways, that's healthy because it turned what was a lackadaisical approach to giving into one in which the donor was really intentional about the act of giving away money. But it was also connected to this sense of hubris, the sense that people that made money knew more. That is where a lot of the difficulties and the more pronounced sort of anti-democratic constraints came in. The pushback has been to exactly that. You know, you might have made your app and your hedge funds might make a lot of money, but the people who actually know the solutions are the people on the ground who are facing and confronted by the major problems you want to address.

When you think of the Andrew Yangs or Tom Steyers of the world, they may be well-meaning candidates, but their money bought them access to the stage.

Yeah. I mean, there's a strong technocratic strain in almost every field and certainly in philanthropy. And some problems that might be well suited for that approach. I wouldn't dismiss it entirely, but in philanthropy at least, the best approach is to try to reign in technocratic aspects.

The best approach is to give people money without strings, for multiple years, and allow them to do what they need to do. That reduces the power of the donor and increases the power of the grantee.

You’re not constantly asking for check-ins or benchmarks. It's a trust-based approach. I think that it's impossible to completely answer the democratic critique of philanthropy, but that's one way that you can mitigate its threats. 

As someone who studies philanthropy, is there something that you advocate for in terms of an alternative way of dealing with wealth?

Yeah, personally, I favor a wealth tax. But sometimes I think the culture of tweeting, “just tax people,” to some extent, ignores the fact that we live in a country with laws and regulatory bodies. The best way to tax the wealthy is not to tweet at them, but to get laws passed that would enforce that. There's a sort of passivity in the sense that's behind that. 

There is also the question of how can you use the huge amounts of wealth that existing policy has allowed to be created in order to push forward progressive or democratic gains? Does philanthropy necessarily undermine the cause of more progressive taxation or a more robust welfare state? What happens to the push for increased public spending and increased public responsibility when there's a lot of attention on really wealthy people trying to solve problems themselves? Does it actually sap the push for larger notions of public responsibility?  That is where somebody like Anand Ghirdadas has been doing a lot of important writing and thinking.

There's nothing that stops anyone from both donating large philanthropic gifts, and also suggesting that that money could also have been spent more equitably by the government. I think you can do both at the same time. 

With the Rockefeller and the rise of modern philanthropy, the initial response from both the public and the government was distrustful, correct? People were wary of what it meant and the power that it would give to individuals. Does the level of distrust change over history? Or has it always been there?

It ebbs and flows. It is definitely the case that at the start of the 20th century, and the rise of modern philanthropy as we know it, there was plenty of concern about what it represented for democracy. And if you think Twitter is bad, the socialist press back in the early 20th century was pretty pointed in their critiques. 

There’s never a time in which the critique of philanthropy disappears entirely.

It's within the background of whatever the larger economic framework is. Wealth equalizes through the 20th century, and, thus, giving did too. None of this critique is coming out of a vacuum. It's all based on the larger political economy. It's not super surprising that for people who grew up in the last couple of decades, there was a moment in which many of us were celebrating entrepreneurs. Bill Gates was on the cover of Time. There was this sense that a lot of these problems could be solved by really wealthy people. But then you get the Great Recession and the Occupy movement, and the critique of philanthropy is rediscovered. And continues to be rediscovered as people are disappointed in its promises. 

Right. Well, I think that is a good place to end it, thank you for your time.