Reimagining Philanthropy for the Greater, Common Good

Collectively, we citizens of the world (from the perspective of an US citizen) are overwhelmed by the many concerns facing both civilization and our planet—from climate change by reducing plastic pollution and carbon emissions, protecting wildlife, endangered species, and our wilderness and oceans, to reforming justice systems and immigration policies, to reducing historic levels of economic inequality and fighting poverty, to improving gender and racial equality, to bettering educational and health care systems (and this is not a complete list). We all ask: Where do we begin? Where should we focus our money, time, and efforts? And, will our individual actions actually make an impact?

The answers we often hear are: It is the government’s responsibility to set up policies. It is for the nonprofit organization to take initiative and to do the work. It is for the philanthropist to provide funds and be our ‘savior.’

I imagine/propose a new plan.

I believe that government funding, taxation, and policy working alongside philanthropy are essential to tackle these issues we are facing. In a time when old, outdated, historic institutions are being challenged there is an opportunity to up-end societal and political systems that are undemocratic, including philanthropic structures and taxation strategies.

Catherine Opie, monument/monumental, 2020 pigment prints.

These seven images are a reflection on a national reckoning with the U.S. history of racial violence, also the land stolen from the indigenous people, and a country that slavery built. Symbolically, taking down of historic statues represents the breakdown of trust in historic institutions and power systems. Without trust civilization collapses.

I have been pondering the significant role, historically and presently of the philanthropist. Years back, in my Masters program, I wrote an essay on Victorian Philanthropy as portrayed in three novels: Vanity Fair, Ruth, and Reuben Sachs. At the time I was serving as a board member for a few arts organizations and began to question the value, purpose, and goals of my own philanthropic work. In these three stories I noticed the intentions behind benevolent actions or endeavors were not completely altruistic. The motivation of this outward focused, seeming generosity was sometimes driven by vanity, or securing a higher status within society, or redeeming one’s soul. It seemed clear that whether the character’s intentions were hidden or transparent, the philanthropist believed they were doing good; yet, they held potential, to improve the well-being for far more.

At a time when there is so much work to do and when conversations of change are circulating, I now believe it is a societal responsibility for those with money and/or time to help build momentum for progress with these challenges. I will go so far as to say that I think it is a duty for the world’s wealthiest to redistribute their overabundance. This can only happen, and make a greater impact, when individual donors, and foundations, working collectively, and with government funding and policies.

How can philanthropists and governments collaborate and work in partnership? Can philanthropists accelerate the work of government? And, are there other models besides institutional philanthropy and taxation?

Let’s take a look at a few methods to bring about evenhandedness and balanced prosperity for this planet and society. Consider a philanthropic organization, The Giving Pledge, started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet. The organization is a platform for the world’s billionaires to disperse the majority of their wealth with aspirations to make the world we live in a healthier and more equitable home for all.  Alternatively, some concerned and influential U.S. citizens formed the Patriotic Millionaires to address their concerns about “the destabilizing level of economic and political inequality” by advocating for higher taxation of the rich. The latter exclusively addresses the concerns in the USA, when many issues are global.

Taxation in the U.S. dates back to the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln sought funds to support the war effort, though his income tax was repealed 10 years later. In 1909 Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment to tax individual personal income. It was ratified in 1913, and we citizens have been taxed ever since. At that time the tax rate was 7%, and it rose to 91% in the 1960s. *www.history.org

“The word philanthropy, from the Greek philanthropia, simply meant love of mankind… Today we define philanthropy as the practice of organized and systemic giving to improve the quality of human life through the promotion of welfare and social change.” *www.historyofgiving.org Philanthropy has given rise to philanthrocapitalism, where profit-oriented business models are implemented to work for the good of society.

Some might say that it is not the responsibility or role of a minority of wealthy white citizens to be the custodians of what is needed for all of society and our planet—rather, it should be the responsibility and duty of the government. To this end, they postulate, we should raise taxes. Then again, one could counter that governments (including in the USA) have not properly or adequately provided even the basic needs for their populace.

What is the better model?

This discussion of taxation and philanthropy cannot omit a discussion of white supremacy, white privilege, and white saviorism. Wealth in society, particularly in western society, is concentrated in the hands of the white citizens, even the institution of philanthropy perpetuates this racism and patterns of wealth distribution. Therefore, to reckon with systems of inequality we should implement reparations, placing money into the hands of those who have been denied due to unjust systems.

Darrick Hamilton, an Academic and Economist presents the most aspirational and admirable model—the baby-bond program. Baby bonds are an investment ‘trust fund’ established and guaranteed by the federal government for the benefit of its citizens’ futures (hence, Washington state has coined it the Future Fund Trust). This ‘trust fund’ is set up at birth, giving babies born in lower income families seed grants. At 18 years of age the grantees would gain access to their money to use for wealth building purposes, including education, down payment towards home ownership, small business startup costs, or retirement savings. This race-neutral policy could create progress to end poverty, reduce wealth inequality, and improve social mobility, moving society towards being more egalitarian.

To propel momentum for this program Hamilton began discussing the idea with major philanthropic foundations, Prosperity Now is a proponent for baby-bonds. Hamilton isn’t waiting for federal policy change, he is optimistic that with the assistance of non-profits, and by starting at the state and local level this will build momentum not only nationally but globally. “Why should baby-bonds be limited to the United States?” he asks. He is a true champion for positive change.

Laura Agular, Access + Opportunity = Success, 1993, gelatin silver print.

Agular holds cardboard signs in the way people who stand on the street ask for help, money, food, or work. She challenges the viewer to face the realities of opportunities and access that are withheld from Brown, Black, and marginalized people who are left behind by patriarchal and white systems.

Hamilton’s model is an inspiration for my proposal of a collaboration in which government, nonprofits, and philanthropy work together to support the betterment of society and help to support our most pressing needs. I believe we can recreate a system to spur social change that is focused on governments’ transparency detailing precisely where tax monies are allocated and an enlightened democracy that guarantees and provides political, social, civil, cultural, and most importantly economic rights and security for its citizens.

Furthermore, I envision a system that would allow communities to vote on where specifically their tax monies are distributed based on community necessity. Each community, city, and state has its pressing needs, as does the nation. The outcome of the election would determine how funds are administered. In addition, I envision a policy/mandate for philanthropic giving in which a percentage of total gifting is allotted to meet these same initiatives through measurable nonprofit organizations that support where/when the government needs additional funding and impetus towards progress. Philanthropists could continue supporting their individual conscientious choices based on their passions and personal interests. The philanthropist would be ‘assisting’ taxation/government to provide for better education, health care, equal opportunities, and climate change. I realize that it would need to be determined how to enforce such a mandate, but I do believe it is time to consider a new system.

In Doing Good, William MacAskill mentions that philanthropy is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Many nonprofit organizations spend a majority of their time raising money for the causes they support. They seek revenue from private donors and government. Even if a nonprofit forgoes government funding, it will be face competition for private funding within its own focus, as well as other causes that seek to allure money from wealthy donors (as organizations seek to replenish diminishing public funds). With many causes and organizations competing for support, how does one choose which is most worthy? MacAskill would say that personal interests, experiences, or influences are not the methodology one should use. He instead proposes effective altruism, which measures the nonprofit, charitable organizations one should support via a strategic, mathematic/economic calculation similar to the evidence-based approach by financial advisors for investment strategies.

For example, an investment advisor may direct clients to invest 79% in bonds (low risk), 20% equities (higher risk), and 1% cryptocurrency (very high risk) in their portfolios. Applying my plan to MacAskill’s theory for charitable gifting, one would per se donate 60% allocated toward effective altruism’s global causes, 20% government/mandated causes,10% emergency relief initiatives, and 1% nonprofit organizations of personal interests.

When you consider objectives, vision, and goals, like Hamilton, I believe it is beneficial to focus on your local community first and then your nation, before addressing global concerns. While I agree that universally we are interconnected and absolutely must consider our global impact, I also believe we must first make sure our own house is healthy and safe before building momentum to reach globally.

Many have commended MacKenzie Scott for how to distribute immense wealth to charitable causes. She analyzes needs and then consults with professionals in various sectors who research charitable organizations efficiency. She focuses on urgent and local causes that directly benefit hard-working people impacted by current crises. Scott supports national YMCA and YWCA chapters, national food banks, LGBTQ equality, and women’s rights. As I write this, she has made the largest single donation to Planned Parenthood. Scott also gives support to organizations fighting global climate change.

By influential activist artist, Andrea Bowers, “Can You Think of Any Laws that Give Government the Power to Make Decisions About the Male Body? Quote by Kamala Harris During Brett Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Hearing in 2018 (Frontpiece by Unknown Illustrator from Les Femmes Illustres, Ou, Les Harangues Heroiques by Madeleine de Scudery, Published by Chez Antoine de Sommaville and Augustin Courbe, Paris, 1644)” 2020, acrylic marker on cardboard.

When I present my ideas for reform to those on each side—philanthropist and tax-increase advocates—mostly, I encountered opposition fueled by criticism and skepticism of government, philanthropic organizations, and the philanthropist.

Some don’t trust that the government can ever become completely transparent about how and where tax monies are allocated, furthermore, they do not want the government telling them where they should donate their money. Others argue that leaving the reins to the wealthy’s whims of charity will result in undemocratic and unaccountable allocations of money to “remake” the world according to their worldview in the name of doing good for all—they believe that no matter how well-meaning or virtuous philanthropists may be, in the end, their gifting will be self-serving.

Importantly, we could and should agree that each of these systems/institutions perpetuate a society that favors white privilege and white saviorism. We should and can create new policies that are in support of redistribution and reparation. For all these very reasons my plan for a collaborative government/philanthropic mandated policy could reimagine our current inefficient systems.

Even if my idea fails, I do think it is worth considering and trying. Albert Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.” I believe it is essential that we reimagine with originality and creativity the methods in place designed to meet the basic needs of society and our planet. We must look for untrodden ways to more effectively support the better good for all and create a world where everyone has equal opportunities and all on this planet thrive.

My intention is for this to be the beginnings of a dialogue and to ask the questions, Your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Barbara Kruger. “Untitled (Questions)” 1990/2018

Links and resources for further reading:

Andrea Bowers, Eco Grief Extinction Series, We Do Not Dare the Vortex of Undoing What Must Be Undone in Order to Heal (Quote by Deena Metzger: Bird Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Declared Extinct October 2021; Figure Joseph Gasking, The Rose Elf, 1893), 2022. Acrylic marker on cardboard.

https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/philanthropy/philanthropists-guide-working-with-government

https://givingcompass.org/article/an-inside-look-at-relational-reparations/

https://www.globaltaxjustice.org/en/latest/taxing-worlds-richest-would-raise-us-252-trillion-year

https://www.mercatus.org/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philanthropy

https://predistributioninitiative.org/about

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/storied-nuanced-history-giving-180976363/

2 comments

  1. Very thoughtful. I suggest you read Davos Man to get a firmer idea of what has happened in the entire world in this area.

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