Think Philanthropically

What do Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Warren Buffet, Melinda Gates, Ed Sheeran, Mackenzie Bezos, Taylor Swift, Matt Damon, Jennifer Garner, Bono, and Beyoncé all have in common?  They regularly donate enormous sums of money to a variety of important causes.

Several have pledged to donate the majority of their wealth to specific foundations as part of their estate planning.  A cynical person might view this as a means of garnering applause or an exercise in guilt reduction.  We should avoid attributing nefarious motives to a person’s generosity.  However, it is legitimate to evaluate the overall helpfulness of some types of giving. There can be such a thing as toxic giving!

“Do gigantic donations of the uber-wealthy act as a means
of demonstrating or exercising power?”

It is important to establish that donating money to organizations that pursue legitimate social good is better than spending it on extravagant luxury items. Conspicuous consumption by some very wealthy people produces salacious headlines and millions of views on social media.  So why criticize the charitable reflexes of people with very deep pockets? Why shouldn’t celebrities establish charitable giving programs that provide millions of dollars to fund programs in support of the arts, enhanced health care, poverty reduction or international development?

One question to ask is, do gigantic donations of the uber-wealthy act as a means of demonstrating or exercising power? Some would suggest that donors frequently have a power motive.  Does the celebrity donor seek to inadvertently extend their influence or very directly impose conditions with the gift? Historically, philanthropy has often been leveraged as a way to “guide from above”.  A wealthy donor could exercise control by condescendingly conferring an amount of cash to a needy recipient who was expected to respond with enormous gratitude and make use of the funds according to the specific wishes of the donor.  This type of power relationship still exists in many philanthropic initiatives.  As a leader in the community sector, I have frequently been approached by prospective donors who want to exercise an undue level of control and guidance in exchange for the promise of a substantial gift.  Does a wealthy donor want to partner with an organization in pursuit of a cause or do they seek to make their gift conditional upon a variety of stipulations around how the donation is deployed?  Having asked these questions we should underline that there are valid ways for donors or foundations to partner with charitable organizations and transparently establish expected outcomes and measurement metrics that will assess the impact and effectiveness of a donation.

Systemic issues like poverty and inequality require much more
than the infusion of tons of money by well-meaning people.”

The other significant consideration is that celebrity giving can camouflage concerns that require systemic social change. As has been noted in a previous column, philanthropy cannot act alone to resolve every major challenge that we face.  Some issues can’t be fixed by throwing billions of dollars at them.  Some can only be addressed with a shift in public opinion that will drive major changes in government policy.  Systemic issues like poverty and inequality require much more than the infusion of tons of money by well-meaning people. A wealthy person with generous motives may fall into the trap of orchestrating distress about an egregious social concern but then proceed to give their followers the impression that they, with their philanthropic largesse, are in the process of solving it.

So, is “celebrity philanthropy” really helpful? Isn’t giving is always better? Sure giving is better, but there is merit in determining how the power dynamic of old-style philanthropy needs to be modified so that a new, more equitable and effective giving models can emerge.

Sam Watts serves as the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He serves on several non-profit boards and is an appointed member of the National Housing Council of Canada.  He is the author of Good Work…Done Better