Is Billionaire Philanthropy Good or Bad for Democracy?

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For a time I want to use this weekly letter to you to surface what I consider to be some of the more intriguing questions embedded in the so-called “new normal” of our work. Many of them have to do with what I consider to be risky paths being taken in a very chaotic environment. That risk, of course, can end in good or in bad or both… but if we do not talk thoroughly about the potential outcomes and the ethics of some of the directions being taken and urged upon us by others, we are being dumbly herded-and who wants that?

 

So make sure you are a part of our “salon,” under which roof you can speak your most irreverent thoughts and hear those of others. Only in this way can we get beyond the catatonia-inducing pabalum that passes for rigor to a more critical dialogue that might actually inform us all.

 

I’d like to call your attention to a newswire that we did yesterday about billionaire philanthropy in public systems. Over the past two years we have been tracking not only billionaire  philanthropy as it has manifested itself across the nation but also the concerns of onlookers about the effects of that philanthropy on democracy. A lot of the concern has been focused on the Gates Foundation, rightly or wrongly but yesterday’s newswire by CMG referred to Facebook founder Zuckerberg’s massive donation to the Newark School system and the subsequent exclusion of parents from decision making.

 

Are these instances of billionaire philanthropy really tantamount to  the very rich buying an inappropriate voice in the direction of public systems–which are intended to be accountable to the citizens they serve? Are the concerns about the impacts of billionaire philanthropy like Zuckerberg’s comparable to concerns about the influence of investments made by institutional philanthropy in public systems? 

 

This is a nation starved for cash, but it is hardly an equal opportunity starvation across the nation’s landscape. Some areas like Newark for instance or Detroit are actually suffering greater levels of poverty and have higher needs for system improvements. What does it mean when residents of the area are edged out of core decision making and accountability mechanisms through agreements – tacit or explicit -with people with deep pockets? Are we placing critical components of communities in the category of pet projects of the very rich? Just asking.

  • John Dex

    The headline of this article questions the influence of billionaire gifts on philanthropy, but the problems cited in the news wire seem more about implementation miscues in Newark. I’m sure that this is not the first philanthropic activity to suffer from a disconnect with its intended beneficiaries. I find it hard to draw a causal relationship between the size of this gift and its implementation.

    Your article raises a broader issue of concern. Despite the donations of billionaires, the bulk of giving comes from everyday philanthropists of more modest means. Gifts are applied across a range of causes, and are not evenly distributed according to a single universal framework of expected benefit. This is inherently democratic and reflects freedom of expression. It can be discouraging to see good money thrown at causes other than our own.

    However, there is something to be said for celebrating generosity in all of its forms–for leadership through giving spawns more social consciousness. The question should not be how to control billionaire giving, but how to harness this phenomena in a way that inspires others.