Generosity and Impact Aren’t Enough. Let’s Judge Philanthropy on How Well it Shifts Power


I’ve developed an uneasy ambivalence toward philanthropy over the years I’ve been writing about it. It stems from a kind of inner conflict over the fact that nearly every case of philanthropic impact, even impact I may celebrate or encourage, is also a case of concentrated wealth exerting its power. 

I get the feeling many people who cover or work in the sector have a similar sort of queasiness. Following the death of his hometown benefactor Gerry Lenfest, philanthropy scholar Benjamin Soskis wrote about his own conflicted feelings, describing the American attitude toward philanthropy as a “tincture of gratitude and apprehension.” Or as David Callahan writes of covering the sector in The Givers, “I’ve come to feel whiplashed between hope and fear.” Others prominent critics like Anand Giridharadas are less ambivalent, and as the New Gilded Age grinds on, there’s been a warranted backlash against wealthy donors.

And yet, these pools of wealth remain, as do the many, varied foundations and donors trying to put them to public good. In spite of our reservations, philanthropy large and small fuels civil society, our cultural institutions, and often social change, as it has in some form throughout history. 

This presents a dilemma, for me, at least. How can we appreciate and encourage “good philanthropy,” while simultaneously sounding the alarm about the dangers of concentrated wealth and its influence? Are those two sentiments in conflict, and do they have to be?  

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know. I do know that the dangers are very real, as real as our weakened public sector and tax base. And some days, I think we’d be better off scrapping the entire charitable tax deduction, or at least vastly changing it. But after much writing and reading on the subject, I’ve come to think that part of this conflict, and a possible way to reconcile it, lies in how we judge what makes good philanthropy. 

Namely, we often gauge the success of philanthropists by some combination of generosity and impact (by impact, I mean achieving intended, measurable outcomes). I increasingly think we ought to, if not completely replace those yardsticks, supplement them by considering as a measure of true philanthropy a funder’s success at shifting power out of its own hands and into others. This could involve funding program areas that challenge plutocracy, putting into place more diverse and participatory governing structures or simple grantmaking practices that yield power and control to recipients instead of funders.

This isn’t an entirely new idea, nor is it a perfect solution to philanthropy’s problems, but it is a concept that I think about and hear about enough that it’s worth putting to paper. 

Why Generosity is a Poor Measure of Good Philanthropy 

Public sentiment toward philanthropy has fluctuated throughout history, as the authors describe in the book Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, marked by periods of rancor, which are contrasted by recent decades in which donors have generally been viewed with warmth (although perhaps decreasingly so). 

That warmth has been stoked by projects like the Giving Pledge, which celebrates the wealthy based on how much of their money they commit to donating. Today, popular debate about whether someone is a good philanthropist often fixates on whether they are sufficiently generous.

Generosity is not a bad thing. Or put another way, lack of generosity is almost certainly a bad thing, given the enormous needs and problems society is up against. In fact, since 2015, I’ve written a series of posts calling on the sector to move more money toward climate action, lamenting the tiny percentage that goes to the cause. I still very much agree with that sentiment, but over time, I’ve also developed a stronger apprehension that giving more should not be viewed as an inherent good. 

For one, generosity is often framed in terms of voluntary redistribution, but we’ve seen that giving is not particularly effective at breaking up large fortunes. Some of the world’s most generous donors—Bloomberg, Gates, Buffett and others—have watched their personal fortunes balloon since committing to give away that very wealth (nearly doubling, in the case of Gates and Buffett). Wealth once accumulated develops a gravitational pull that leaves generosity far too weak a tool to act as any sort of counterweight to inequality. 

But I also worry about the consequences of increases in generosity. A recent opinion piece in Salon comes to mind, in which the author poses that we should make it the socially accepted standard for billionaires to give nearly all of their money away. I like the spirit, but honestly, I get a chill at the thought of those trillions of dollars flooding into various arenas (or maybe just Harvard!).

I know this is sacrilege, and grantseekers in particular are screaming at me as they fight tooth and nail to secure scant funding for their important work. But as disturbing as it is that so few people are sitting on so much wealth, I also find the idea of them vastly expanding their philanthropy kind of terrifying

Continuing with the climate change example, imagine if the Gates Foundation made even a 20 percent increase to its annual giving, and devoted it entirely to climate change mitigation. Freeing up a billion a year, that would more than double annual climate mitigation philanthropy ($775 million in 2017). A welcome scenario on one hand, but now think of the huge influence on the kind of work that would be prioritized as a result, all governed by the foundation’s only three trustees. 

To be clear, I’m not saying that giving more money away is a bad thing, or that it can’t be done right. Just that it is not inherently good, and that it’s at least an incomplete measure of good philanthropy. 

Why Impact Is a Poor Measure of Good Philanthropy 

This gets to the problem with impact—the fact that the sums wealthy donors can move are so great that even when they are highly effective in their giving, the outcomes can be dangerous. This is rooted in Rob Reich’s argument in his book Just Giving that, rather than celebrating it as generosity, philanthropy should be scrutinized as an exercise of power. 

I should note that I’m using the term “impact” loosely to describe a guiding principle that has driven much of modern philanthropy—whether or not a grantmaking effort demonstrably achieves a desired outcome, a kind of social return on investment. One framework of this idea is strategic philanthropy; another is effective altruism. But if we’re viewing philanthropy as an exercise of power, how effectively it does so is also not a sufficient way to judge giving.

For one, even if a foundation is outstanding at getting the job done, what if it’s doing the wrong job? What if a foundation runs an effective, strategic campaign to build a local ice rink (or maybe a velodrome track, or a floating performance venue) on a plot of land that residents were already trying to turn into a multi-use park? As Soskis pointed out following David Koch’s death, here was an undeniably effective philanthropist, but one who often gave “in service of anti-social, selfish values.” 

Second, even if a funder sets a goal that is unimpeachable by some impossibly objective standard, and that funder does an incredible job at achieving that goal, there could be passive negative impacts, boosting the prominence of an institution that relies upon wealth inequality, and that is governed by the few with little accountability. This is especially problematic when it presents the misleading impression that private wealth can carry out the job of a hobbled public sector.

Shifting Power as a Better Metric

You could follow some of the arguments I’m making here and arrive at the conclusion that, well, subsidized philanthropy in its current form simply shouldn’t exist, and personal wealth as it is today definitely shouldn’t exist. I’d agree with the latter, and there’s a pretty good case for the former. 

But that doesn’t get at where the sector should go from here. Nor does it grapple with the fact that there has always been some kind of philanthropy, including forms that support minority interests and causes that are overlooked by government, that advance a more just society, and that contribute to and even strengthen democracy. There are foundations and donors out there doing incredibly beneficial work; I see it every day in the institutions and nonprofits even within my own community.   

If the goal is philanthropy’s ultimate obsolescence or even merely reform, I suggest one compass we might follow is not judging whether giving is big enough or smart enough, but instead considering whether it’s shifting power instead of accumulating it. These days, as I’m critiquing funders and their programs, that’s the gauge I’m often holding up in the back of my mind. 

This basic principle has existed within various frameworks for a long time. I’m thinking of NCRP’s model of responsive philanthropy, the Whitman Institute’s trust-based philanthropy, Aaron Horvath and Walter Powell’s contributory philanthropy, or Chiara Cordelli’s argument that much of philanthropy should be considered reparative justice with limited donor discretion. Giridharadas urges the wealthy to “give something up” instead of merely “giving back,” by elevating structural changes like a global capital tax, for example. 

I can see it manifesting in many broad ways, from choosing program areas to grantmaking procedures. One of the practitioners of this idea that really stuck with me is the Chorus Foundation, which I first profiled back in 2017. This is a foundation that is giving to literally speed its own demise, spending down through chunks of general support to a set of local groups working on climate change in select regions. Aside from the fact that it’s not operating in perpetuity, Chorus’s goal is less about achieving specific climate wins, and more about leaving communities with more power of their own to lead the transition away from fossil fuels. 

I’ve also been impressed by foundations undertaking participatory grantmaking, a concept that’s been around for many years, but is drawing attention from major funders in part thanks to the work of proponents like Cynthia Gibson. It involves a funder handing over decision-making power to members of the community it serves. Another initiative, the Boston Ujima Project, takes a fascinating approach to supporting community-driven investment decisions with a mix of philanthropy and private investment. (Moving power with investments is a whole other topic.)

These are more radical examples, but even mainstream grantmakers can make shifting power a larger part of their DNA. That could mean choosing programmatic areas that combat inequality or place limits on the power of the wealthy (taxes, campaign finance), or otherwise strengthen the public sector and democratic processes. It could involve changing governance by increasing board size and diversity, or heeding community input. Or simple grantmaking practices like trusting grantees to determine what impact looks like, and giving general operating support. The principle can be put into action voluntarily by foundations, used by critics to provide a reality check, or by advocates to urge sector reforms. 

You can imagine many advantages in this approach to philanthropy. For one, it’s potentially good for the future of the sector. Discontent toward plutocracy is only growing, and internally changing norms to yield power is likely preferable than external reforms and their consequences. Giving up control also maximizes a foundation’s capacity for taking risks and supporting edgy ideas, allowing other voices and perspectives to take chances with resources. And arguably, it creates more durable change. What good is impact if it dries up as soon as a donor’s spigot turns off? Rather than tally up numbers, wouldn’t it be better to use wealth to create stronger institutions, formed and guided by those outside of foundations? 

I’m not so naive that I think those in the sector might read this and throw out their playbooks. And I know there’s a large contingent in philanthropy that believes wealth does, in fact, entitle them to more power. This is also admittedly far from a fully baked solution. It’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario in which someone is generous, impactful, and shifts power, but the outcome is still quite bad. 

But it’s a framing that I think has merit, and feels more like what philanthropy ought to be than it often is. Maybe looking to a kind of generosity of power instead of money can bring some moral and practical clarity to using existing pools of wealth to make the world a better, more just place.