What Robert Wilson Taught Us (Or Didn’t Teach Us) About Philanthropy

Wilson’s suicide in December, just three months after suffering a debilitating stroke, was tragic. And while there’s no doubt he was a significant philanthropist, his record on the subject seems at times contradictory and confusing. 

While making a concerted effort to spend down his wealth during his lifetime, giving away more than $500 million of his $800 million fortune, and recently saying he only had about $100 million left to go, he snubbed Bill Gates’ effort to get him to join The Giving Pledge in 2010. His response to Gates, which was recently published by Buzzfeed, was nothing short of epic:

Mr. Gates, I decided more than ten years ago to try to give away 70% of my net worth and have already given away one-half billion dollars. (I’ve never been a Forbes 400) So I really don’t have to take the pledge.

Your “Giving Pledge” has a loophole that renders it practically worthless, namely permitting pledgees to simply name charities in their wills. I have found that most billionaires or near billionaires hate giving large sums of money away while alive and instead set up family-controlled foundations to do it for them after death. And these foundations become, more often than not, bureaucracy-ridden sluggards. These rich are delighted to toss off a few million a year in order to remain socially acceptable. But that’s it.

While Mr. Wilson does have a point here, it’s the statement he’s made in response to Gates’ follow-up that is perhaps the most interesting (and troublesome).

When I talk to young people who seem destined for great success, I tell them to forget about charities and giving. Concentrate on your family and getting rich—which I found very hard work. I personally and the world at large are very glad you were more interested in computer software than the underprivileged when you were young. And don’t forget that those who don’t make money never become philanthropists.

When rich people reach 50 and are beginning to slow down is the time to begin engaging them in philanthropy.

Again, he does have a point, but as critics have pointed out, the notion that there is a particular time to start engaging in philanthropy seems silly. First of all, philanthropy is about more than just giving money. Secondly, people are living longer (Wilson was 87), and many top investors and businessmen work well into their seventies or even eighties, so they're not necessarily beginning to slow down at 50. And third, advances in technology have made the emergence of young millionaires and billionaires a much more common occurrence, so ultimately, it's a good thing that young philanthropists such as Facebook cofounder Dustin Muskovitz aren't listening to Wilson, and have instead adopted a philosophy of giving as they go, noting that making philanthropic investments now ultimately yields a much greater return— just like a business investment, that charitable investment has more time to grow and mature, and its impact compounds over time. 

For his part, much of Wilson's philanthropy was directed to the environment and historical preservation, but he was also the largest single donor to the Catholic School System of the Archdiosese of New York, which seems a little odd considering he was an atheist. Clearly, he wanted to do something to support education, but it wasn't so much his belief in the Catholic school system that spurred his donation as his conservative political viewpoints. As his friend Maneula Hoetlerhoff tells it, "he hated teacher unions more than he hated religion." Perhaps if he'd been around a bit longer, he would have shifted his focus toward charter schools, but Manuela portrays Wilson as something of a miser in his everyday life, despite his generous philanthropy. 

At the end of the day, perhaps it doesn't matter why he gave, only that he gave. There's one other small tidbit, however, that may seem insignficant at first, but makes me think of Wilson, at least in his later years, as a crotchety old man who had no idea what he was talking about. And that is Manuela's passing mention that Wilson hoped campaign finance reform would fail.

The irony here is that Wilson was a conservative, and seemed to hold a belief that the free market could solve just about anything. Apart from the free market itself proving this notion is faulty, what Wilson seems not to realize is that our campaign finance system has created a form of government that is not beholden to the people alone, but also to special moneyed interests that spend millions on financing elections, and that this results in conflicts of interest that not only create bad policy, but that distort free markets and cause them to function improperly--meaning that whatever social problems the free market might be able to help solve, our current campaign finance system is preventing it from doing so. 

Perhaps, even though he was quite generous, Wilson was not the best philanthropic role model.