Bad Book: Why Philanthropy Matters

If Princeton University Press hadn’t provided a free chapter of Why Philanthropy Matters: How the Wealthy Give, and What It Means for Our Economic Well-Being by Zoltan J. Acs, I might have bought it. But I could barely stomach that first chapter, so my thoughts are based entirely on that. 

It starts well enough, with a surprising ‘fact’ (is this true?) that the Giving Pledge generated seven percent of all traffic on Twitter in 2010.

But then it becomes clear that the author isn’t talking about why philanthropy matters: he’s talking solely about why American philanthropy matters to America. He appears unaware of – or at least unmoved to comment on – any other country anywhere. It’s fine to write books about America, but don’t pretend that they’re universally applicable.

“To understand philanthropy is to understand the American psyche…” Well not if you’re understanding philanthropy elsewhere.

“When philanthropy is absent, rent-seeking flourishes”. This is a pretty weird claim: philanthropy is higher in countries which have a small role for the state and low taxes – it’s low in France, for example, not because French are evil or selfish but because the French, unlike the Americans, think that all roads should be cleaned, not just those which a donor wants to clean. (Much more on the red herring of bald comparisons of national giving rates here.) Is France – or other big-state places like Norway – full of outrageous rent-seeking? It’s hardly what they’re famous for.

Back on the Giving Pledge, he talks of it having been signed by “some American business leaders”. Like David Sainsbury, a Brit; Richard Branson, another Brit; Chuck Feeney, an Irishman; Mo Ibrahim, who’s Sudanese; the Russian Vladimir Potanin; Chris Hohn or Michael Moritz, more Brits; Hasso Plattner who’s German; or George Lucas one doubts defines himself as ‘a business leader’.

Then it has lots of statements which just seem untrue or garbage:

“Only philanthropy that results in economic and social opportunities…has positive externalities”. So support for churches or architectural preservation or, species conservation, or most arts, or even soup-kitchens don’t have positive externalities (economist-speak for ‘benefit other people’)? Neither does caring for the dying?

“In France, you must leave your money to your family.” Must? You can’t leave it to a charity or the church? Really? Shame there’s no reference for that curious statement.

“Philanthropy has all along been an unstated principle at the heart of American-style capitalism”. Really? Odd that it gets such scant press as such.

Towards the end of the first chapter, he ‘fesses up: “This book is a reflection on contemporary American-style capitalism”. In which case, perhaps the title should have said so.

Philanthropy is fundamentally about noticing other people and responding to what they need. So it’s depressingly ironic when people discuss it without noticing the 99% of humanity outside their own borders.

A book entitled ‘why philanthropy matters’ could have been really interesting: about the important things which need doing in a society which cannot be done by corporate or commercial money and which therefore must be done philanthropically. Basic scientific research, promoting rights for disabled people or abused people, environmental protection, pushing for legislative change: in fact anything where the timescale is too long, or risk too high, or benefit too diffuse, to enable a commercial return, and/or where the work involves influencing government. Philanthropy is vastly important sometimes to prevent something becoming privately owned: galleries are good examples, and the work funded by Wellcome Trust to ensure that the human genome is freely available is perhaps the best example. Current work on defending free speech is literally vital and couldn’t happen other than philanthropically.

A list of inventions and developments funded philanthropically which influence us all would be fascinating, and inspiring, and would amply show why philanthropy matters. It could even feature the surprising result of a scholarship to a Kenyan student: his son, America’s first black US President.

Peter Singer on why people should give & how to get them to give—>

Caroline Fiennes on how to give well—>

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