Is It Philanthropy If…? Or, Why You Didn’t Get a Multimillion-dollar Gift This Year

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December 16, 2014; Bloomberg

Nina Glinski writes for Bloomberg that the rich giving to already-rich institutions is warping our understanding of so-called philanthropy. She cites as an example Fred Eshelman, who graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1972 and, as a proud alumnus, gave the school its largest gift in its 225-year history—$100 million. Eshelman is a pharmeceuticals guy, so his gift will establish the Eshelman Institute of Innovation within the Eshelman School of Pharmacy. He said the school inspires him: “In the past 10 years, the school has generated more than 130 patents and created 15 spin-off companies.”

Patrick Rooney, associate dean for academic affairs and research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis and an author of the annual Giving USA study, says that too many large donations like this one tend to disproportionately serve the personal interests and values of an elite set of benefactors. He says that the increases last year in individual giving came as a result of multiple gifts of $80 million or more. “The gains and losses in giving are increasingly driven by a smaller percentage of the population,” said Rooney.

Post-recession economic gains have largely been concentrated in the top income tiers, and these donors tend to give to higher education, medical research, and cultural institutions. “The favored charities of the wealthy are gaining in share in the philanthropic economy,” a trend that is symptomatic of wealth inequality, said Rob Reich, associate professor of political science at Stanford University. “The total amount of money given away by the very wealthy is going up, not because they’re giving away a greater share of their income,” but because “their total income and wealth itself has grown.”

Reich says that charitable giving is rarely devoted to supporting the basic needs of strangers. “Philanthropy appears to be more about the pursuit of one’s own projects, a mechanism for the expression of one’s values or preferences rather than a mechanism for the redistribution or relief for the poor.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Simone Joyaux

    Any decent fundraising professional — any well-run fundraising program — any top notch NGO…….. ALL believe that philanthropy has nothing to do with gift size. Philanthropy is love of humankind (the Greeks). Philanthropy is voluntary action for the common good (Bob Payton).

    Philanthropy is giving time or money. A philanthropist is the person who gives $25 or 10 euros or or ….

    Shame on us. Shame on anyone or any organization who thinks that philanthropy is about size.

    Let’s cut the crap people. I’m so tired of the skewed way of thinking. The ignoble behaviors. The inappropriate strategies.

  • Michael J. Rosen, CFRE

    I take issue with the underlying theme of the article that somehow wealthy philanthropists are more narcissistic than other donors and that the causes they choose to support are likewise less worthy.

    For example, Robert Reich is quoted as saying, “Philanthropy appears to be more about the pursuit of one’s own projects, a mechanism for the expression of one’s values or preferences rather than a mechanism for the redistribution or relief for the poor.”

    What unmitigated liberal nonsense! (For the record, I’m a moderate.) Philanthropy is not about wealth “redistribution.” It’s about individuals voluntarily donating THEIR money to causes that THEY believe will make society better. Do they look at what’s in it for them? Sure, just like all donors do. However, there is no evidence that supports Reich’s view.

    Let’s take the example from the article about Fred Eshelman’s $100 million gift to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Yes, he gets his name on a school and institute. So what? The pharmacy school he supports has generated more than 130 patents and spun off 15 companies. In other words, the school has been innovative and has led to the creation of companies that are creating jobs. While Eshelman has benefited from his giving, it has not been a pure ego-trip. The school was already contributing greatly to society. Now, it will be able to build on that tradition.

    Enough with the class warfare in this country!

  • Justice Pobi

    I agree with you.. It may be a perception but Philanthropy, in most cases, is no longer a mechanism for redistribution of resources or relief for the poor.

    The choice is at the level of the giver and until the tax authorities come out with a framework whereby different tax relief rates are applicable to different categories of recipients, the individual values and preferences will solely determine the recipients.