What is Philanthropy: Why this Matters

December 12, 2019

Lindsey McDougle: Professor, Rutgers University

Philanthropy seems to be having its moment in the cultural spotlight lately. You may have seen an increase in media attention about philanthropy, alongside growing discussions regarding the promises and perils of different philanthropic initiatives. 

From Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker’s calls for a “new Gospel of Wealth” to Anand Giridharadas’ claims that “big philanthropy” more often than not operates as an elite charade toward changing the world, philanthropy seems to have captured the attention of policymakers, academics, voters, as well as everyday citizens. 

Most of us, however, may not see ourselves in these discussions. 

None of us will likely ever have the level of resources that the Ford Foundation has, nor will we likely ever have the level of resources of the “big philanthropists” that Giridharadas calls out for their egregious abuses of powerabuses that, he ultimately suggests, obscure their role in causing the very social problems they later attempt to solve. 

So, why does any of this matter to us? To you? Or, to me?

Well, for one, we all exist within a system that privileges some, while excludes many others. Even if our resources have not yet reached (nor ever will reach) limitless levels, we all have a responsibility to reflect on how the privileges that we do have act to sustain and reinforce the very systems that lead to others’ exclusion. What, then, does our privilege blind us to? And, how might we use any of the limited resources that we do have to promote greater equity within these systems?

Second, in an era of ever-increasing inequality, we might be tempted to view philanthropy as a disruptive force capable of combating even the most severest forms of inequality. But, this requires all of us to carefully consider what role we believe philanthropy should play in society. Should we expect more of philanthropy than our own government? Can the resources of a relatively few individuals ever really eradicate (or ever even be expected to make a dent in) mass inequality?

These are critical questions that we must begin to consider if we truly want to understand what philanthropy is, and the many promises and perils that it can hold.