Friday, June 23, 2017

America: The Case Against Oligarchical Philanthropy

It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 19:23 NIV)

In Lords of Charity (its title in the June 26, 2017 print edition of America) Nathan Schneider, a reporter and professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, argues the case against oligarchical philanthropy as we know it, specifically targeting Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. 

Is Bill Gates giving his money away?  Isn’t he buying control of additional sectors of the economy, setting the agenda in health care and school reform. His foundation rivals the World Health Organization. At least the WHO has some government accountability. He holds influence over the US public school system which his foundation consistently steers toward Microsoft products. He went to private school and was a college dropout; he is a good salesperson of a monopolistic product. Does that qualify him to redirect large areas of the economy outside his expertise, solely because he has money?  Is what he is doing philanthropy, love of humanity?  Schneider compares it to buying indulgences.
Yet long after anyone remembers the misfortune of running Windows Vista, Mr. Gates can expect enduring praise for pouring money into humanitarian pursuits.

What are the alternatives?  Schneider proposes giving it back in several ways:
1. To the employees:
2.To the users of Facebook in the case of Mark Zuckerberg.
3. Direct gifts of cash to accounts of poor people.

Schneider details creative ways of doing all this that would increase democracy by letting employees, users, and the poor decide how the money is to be spent. Against fears that it might be misspent, Schneider quotes Francis “for a homeless man maybe a glass of wine is his only happiness in life.”
If philanthropy means love of others, it must prove itself by entrusting the material of that love to the intended recipients. To believe in the dignity of other human beings is to honor their capacity to choose.

My Comments

This article strikes an appropriate degree of skepticism about the rich. It questions whether they deserve their wealth, and what motivates their philanthropy.

The above quote by Jesus was not to the rich man who neglected the beggar at his steps, That man was clearly destined for hell. Rather Jesus spoke them to a rich man who claimed he had observed all the commandments from his youth. When asked what more could he do, Jesus replies that he should sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow him.

Jesus understood that money, status and power can limit our ability to do good. Likewise, we should understand that billionaires are more likely to be part of the problem rather than the solution

This article’s critique of current philanthropy goes beyond that of the oligarchs, and applies to the philanthropy of nonprofits, and governmental philanthropy.

The county mental health boards in Ohio are in many ways a model of good governmental philanthropy. Most of their money comes with property taxes which must be renewed every ten  years. They also administer state and federal tax money though those often have strings attached. The money is administered by volunteer citizens chosen partly by county commissioners, and partly by the Ohio Department of Mental Health. Boards do not directly operate services but contract with providers. Sunshine laws give citizens a lot of access to decision making. So there are a lot of checks and balances.

Yet even this well designed system of philanthropy has its limitations. As one consumer leader said:
I don’t want the most expensive mental health system, not even the one with the best practices, rather I want a system that I have helped shaped and that I know will be there when I need it.
Most of the large philanthropies with which I have been associated (higher education, the church, the mental health system) see more money as the solution. But most people are rightly skeptical, They see greedy administrators; they wonder how much money gets to the line staff that does the work, and how much the money benefits the people whom these institutions serve.

What these philanthropies usually talk about is better practices. But these practices are usually defined by the experts who happen to be the people who run these institutions. There are the consumer satisfaction surveys, but those rarely address the real needs and outcomes of the people being served.

Allowing the people who are served (by which I would include all stakeholders, not merely the mentally ill but their family members, various community agencies, the general public) to have a say in the shaping of the mental health system is a difficult and never finished task. However it begins with the primary recipients of the philanthropy who often are the ones most neglected. Their dignity and capacity not only to choose but to shape the philanthropy is essential.

This article raises questions about our personal philanthropy. Can we give to organizations in ways that maximize our own involvement as well as that of the recipients?

When I became financially secure around age forty, I decided to limit my giving to several larger contributions. These would go only to organizations where I was personally involved, or knew very well, and that I would target specific projects within these organizations.

So for example rather than giving to a general diocesan fund, I gave specifically to a campus ministry program that provided a Catholic intellectual as well as pastoral presence on a state university campus. Rather than give to the general fund of a Catholic university, I gave to a scholarship fund for people from the same county where I grew up.

When I have been involved in parish ministry, e.g. pastoral staff, pastoral council, I have contributed to the parish general fund. However when I have not been personally involved I have given to specific parish projects, like the Saint Vincent de Paul society or parish food bank that target how my money is used.  I have long believed in being a poor church for the poor.


  1. Schneider has some good points, the main one being that being a great success at making and marketing office supplies doesn't make someone an authority on education and health care. But when someone who has been successful turns to "giving back," his natural tendency is to want to run things, and everyone else's tendency is to let him, since everyone else is depending on his money. Frankly I think any 10 teachers, chosen at random, could come up with better school reforms than Bill Gates and Betsy DeVos. What they won't have is the money and the access to decision makers that money provides. If you have 10 random teachers on Line 1 and Bill Gates on Line 2, which line will you pick up?

    Gates has been very up front and boyishly appealing about his efforts to remake education, but his corporation-based solutions, um, suck. They have left a large cohort of kids with shredded education. It's not all Bill's fault, either. Dozens of "education governors" and lawmakers getting even for high school D's have contributed mightily.

    As for Zuckerberg, I hope his contributions include a comic book collection comparable to the Frick Collection, since that's the kind of culture for which he is preparing our posterity.

    I don't know as much as I should about the history of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. I know old man Rockefeller was very hands-on with Colonial Williamsburg, but my impression is that when they matured both foundations turned to expert boards supporting the initiatives of leading lights in their chosen fields of interest. Which, istm, is not a bad thing to do with a bunch of money.

    1. I doubt that San Francisco General Hospital has a lot of complaints about the generosity of Zuckerberg and his wife.

  2. I think (Catholic) Melinda Gates is doing a really good job of helping poor women around the world become more economically independent with her emphasis on contraception .... For Melinda Gates, Birth Control Is Women’s Way Out of Poverty

    If there was a wealthy organization that I would want to question on how it spends its money, it would be the church ... what a can of worms.

    Back when I had a little more money than now, I would give to causes that touched my heart, which were mostly animal charities. I tried to evaluated them by using Charity Navigator, which gives information on what percentage of donations are actually used for the targeted recipients.

    1. When we speak of how "The Church" spends its money, it's not just one entity. There are the parish churches, dioceses, the Vatican, the pope's charities such as Peter's Pence, and organizations such as Catholic Relief Services. I have no problem supporting our local parish, we have a finance committee and good oversight as to how money is spent. I am a little more stingy about the archdiocese; it seems like they're always fund raising, and our resources are limited. We contribute to Catholic Relief Services; I think they do a lot of good.

      BTW, I agree about Melinda Gates doing good things. And not just with family planning; she supports a lot of education efforts for women and girls, and children's hospitals.

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    4. If at first you don't succeed ...

      Do you recall the recent leaks of info about the Vatican and how it spends its money? Explosive New Book: Vatican Sainthood Costs $550K and 'Vatileaks' scandal a 'battle between good and evil' in the Catholic church

      The domestic church has spent money on lobbying against the relaxing of sex abuse statutes of limitations, on trying to doom marriage equality, religious liberty law suits, etc.

    5. The Gates Foundation is also investing heavily into developing an anti-malaria vaccine. Malaria is still a deadly disease in much of the world.

    6. I didn't know there was a malaria vaccine in the works, that's good news.

  3. O Lord, do not get me started. Eli Broad. He is into everything from cancer tumor registries to modern art to education experiments. The obscenely rich and their obscenely good intentions ...

    I tend to send small amounts directly to people I know or hear about with a note explaining why I want to help.

    I have also taken to tipping local service providers more than the customary 15 percent (this is the Midwest, and we are cheapskates) because they are competing against chains and big boxes. The guy who cuts my hair gives me 30 minutes of entertainment, useful community info, a nice shampoo, and an above average hair cut.

    Yes, I recommend Charity Navigator.

  4. Okay, so philanthropy is sometimes misguided and ham handed. But at least they somewhat recognize an obligation to try to give back to society. What I can't stand is what the obscenely rich have done to politics with such things as Citizens United. Think Koch Brothers. And George Soros. Let's restore some reason to campaign financing laws. There's something for the Democrats to sink their teeth into. There's even some bipartisan support for that. But there's too much "bought and paid for". And I'm thinking of our own governor, Pete Ricketts, who gave $300,000 of his own money toward a campaign to restore the death penalty to Nebraska (the campaign was successful in doing so.) And he gave $72,500 to the campaigns of people running for state legislator (in our supposedly nonpartisan unicameral legislature) who would support his Republican tea party agenda. I'm sure he's got his sights set on bigger things than Nebraska. I would much rather see him spend his money on the Society for Saving the Striped Cockroach, or something.

  5. Gates Foundation: Has been working for years to eradicate polio. They're almost there. For that alone, I would give them a plenary indulgence

  6. It's not illegal to get obscenely rich or for the obscenely rich to do obscenely stupid things with their money, so long as it's just stupid and not illegal.

    My problem with the obscenely rich is that they got that way by not paying their employees a fair wage. If they DID pay them a fair wage, they wouldn't need to be going around eradicating polio or telling women how many kids they should have, or building ugly modern art museums.

    They also wouldn't be able to diddle around with the political system.

  7. Here's Huey P. Long. He might have been slightly drunk when he gave this speech, but he's making sense to me.

  8. Eradicating polio started with Dr. Salk and his vaccine. He lived comfortably but did not make billions.

  9. Yes, and the vaccine was distributed free by the gubmint. I remember going to our local elementary school and getting it on a sugar cube.

    1. Me too. I remember getting in trouble with my mom for telling my brothers the sugar cube had chimp spit on it. Why are kids such jerks! I think the oral was the Sabin vaccine, and the shot was Salk. For some reason the Sabin has fallen out of favor, don't know exactly why; seems like it would be easier to dispense.

    2. Don't feel bad about the chimp spit. I told my brother there was no Santa and proved it by making him watch Dad eat the Xmas cookies.

      The injected vaccine produces immunity in more people, I guess, but the oral is still used in many parts of the world.