Is philanthropy really a good thing?

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By Joy Portella


This month Jeff Bezos announced that former Amazon Vice President Mike George would lead his Day 1 Academies Fund, part of a $2 billion effort to improve education and help homeless families. This is an important step in Bezos’ long-overdue maturation as a philanthropist.


On one level, I’m happy to see Bezos get more intentional and focused in his philanthropy. For years, he and his company have been loudly criticized for being remarkably unphilanthropic. And even when he’s been generous – for example, his $2.5 million gift to support marriage equality in Washington State – his giving has been random and sporadic.


But the Mike George anointing also makes me uncomfortable. First of all, he’s a 20+ year veteran of Amazon, where I’m certain he crushed it. The guy’s got an amazing resume doing everything from bringing Alexa into our homes to running Amazon’s global payment services and human resources.


But what does he know about education?


I’m sure Mr. George is tasked with bringing tech-style disruption and rigor to the education sector. Bezos is an out-of-the-box guy and he wants that same thinking to infuse his quest to establish Montessori-inspired preschools in impoverished communities. But education is a notoriously hard nut to crack and putting a total outsider at the helm doesn’t inspire much confidence.


The second source of my discomfort is a growing sense that private philanthropy like that of Mr. Bezos might not be great for the world. According to the annual Giving USA survey, Americans gave more than $410 billion to nonprofits in 2017 – more than ever before.


A large chunk of that generosity came from super-wealthy philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. Those gifts are building schools, fighting diseases, and helping people start businesses.


That’s all good, right? Well maybe.


A groundbreaking book published this year is causing many people – myself included – to question the wisdom of philanthropy and the role it should play in our society. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better by Rob Reich challenges readers to examine and question philanthropy rather than praise it.


A quick disclaimer: I know Rob Reich. He’s the intellectual pride of my very middling New Jersey public high school. He’s scary smart but he’s also a thoughtful and kind guy. There’s nothing rash or shrill about his personality or his critiques.


And Just Giving is one heck of a critique.


Reich’s claim is that private philanthropy – especially the giving of mega-philanthropists like Gates, Buffett, Bloomberg, and others – is deeply undemocratic. To make it all worse, this giving is subsidized by the government’s charitable tax deductions.


Reich is not anti-philanthropy; he wants to make it better. He views “big philanthropy” – gifts in the millions and billions – as an exercise of power that deserves public scrutiny. When billionaires give away their money, it directs their private assets to exert outsized public influence. And there’s usually little or no input from the people who will be impacted by this influence.


For a good synopsis of Reich’s ideas, including how philanthropy and tax deductions in particular could be reimagined, read his interview with Vox’s Dylan Matthews.


So what does this all mean for communicators?


First of all, get ready for philanthropists to ramp up their communications. Twenty years ago when I got into this business, the idea that private foundations needed to communicate at all was nascent. It was their own money, they could do what they pleased with it, so why talk about it?


But as Bill and Melinda Gates have ushered in another generation of mega-philanthropists, and technology has made it easier to evaluate the impact of philanthropy, scrutiny has grown. The need to explain – and sometimes defend – philanthropic investments is more important than ever. Critiques like Reich’s add fuel to the fire.


Second, I hope that more people like Reich will examine and openly question the role of philanthropy in our country and our world. And I hope that these critiques are communicated in ways that force the rest of us to think about how the resources of a small group of super-wealthy people impact our lives.

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.