Politics & Society

The best books on Philanthropy

recommended by Beth Breeze

In Defence of Philanthropy by Beth Breeze

In Defence of Philanthropy
by Beth Breeze

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Philanthropy is everywhere—and that means we need an informed debate about what it is and how to do it better, rather than resorting to populist critiques of donors and their motives, argues Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. Here she recommends five books to help encourage a more careful and nuanced look at philanthropy, an activity that affects all of us every day but is particularly critical in the lives of the most vulnerable.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

In Defence of Philanthropy by Beth Breeze

In Defence of Philanthropy
by Beth Breeze

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Before we talk about the books you’ve chosen to recommend, a question: what is philanthropy and what role does it typically play in a society?

I started as a fundraiser, so I’ve been a practitioner and am now a scholar. Both times, it struck me how philanthropy is hidden in plain sight. It’s everywhere, we all do it, we all get asked all the time and most of us give all the time—not just money, but time, blood, information, advice, help. It’s all there. And yet, there’s this very separate argument about philanthropy, as if it is only huge gifts given by white, rich American men. That’s the tension, the dilemma that I’m trying to address in my work.

What actually is philanthropy? For me, it’s showing love of humankind—which is all the word means. Just clarifying that definition suddenly helps to answer so many questions and criticisms of philanthropy, because if we’re all doing it, and we’ve done it all through our history, and in every geographical context, then it becomes something we need to understand and grapple with.

We need to work out what it is and how to do it better, rather than this tribal ‘am I for it or against it?’. It’s a bit like being for or against breathing! Often the debates around philanthropy treat it as if it’s something optional, that we could just cancel. People want to cancel billionaires because they have understandable concerns about wealth accumulation and inequality; then there’s a slippage into wanting to cancel ‘billanthropy’ (giving by billionaires). I’d suggest starting with the non-giving billionaires and then differentiating between better and worse philanthropy. Of course it is improvable, but my key point is that it is not inherently or inevitably problematic.

Is there a way to get a sense of the scale of philanthropy, or is it hard to measure if the definition is so broad?

It is hard, so what tends to happen is that because we can’t find any other way to measure it, we just come up with a money figure, a number. In the UK, it’s about £10 billion a year, in the US, it’s about $400 billion a year. We immediately divert ourselves down one very specific path, one type of philanthropy and immediately only have figures for the US and the UK. That focus on money giving is at the root of a lot of the problems that recur when we discuss philanthropy and the implication that it’s only about these two countries. Even though globally they’re a small fraction of the population, about 4%, they dominate 99% of debates.

“Can anybody get through a day without benefiting from philanthropy?”

Trying to put a figure on it causes these issues. Instead, what I’ve sometimes said we could try and do is ask, ‘Can anybody get through a day without benefiting from philanthropy?’ And I would say you can’t, not only because of the very specific acts that you benefit from: my child at nursery or school, or I might use a library or a swimming pool that’s had philanthropic donations, or I might go to the theatre. It’s almost impossible to go through a day without benefiting from historic and contemporary donations. But even if you do—let’s say you stay home all day during lockdown—you still might have cleaner air around you or green spaces that have had philanthropic help, or you might wear a cycle helmet when you exercise that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has campaigned for, or see more birds thanks to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Instead of putting a number figure on philanthropy, I think it’s more enlightening to point out that you just can’t escape it. It affects all of us every day. And that takes us back to, ‘Let’s try and get a grasp on what it is and try and understand it and improve it.’

Explaining what it is and what the critiques of it are is something you do very clearly in your book, In Defence of Philanthropy. Is that why you wrote it?

I wrote the book because there seemed a growing gap between those of us who do think about it, who work on it, who are donors, who are working in charities, who study it—and this growing chorus of critique. There was a very obvious disconnect between how those of us in the philanthropic sector were experiencing the practice, and this separate critical chorus, mostly saying things that were already very well known. These were not new criticisms, they seemed to be unaware of many efforts to improve how philanthropy is practised, such as developments in how to deal with the power dynamics by developing ‘trust-based philanthropy’. I felt there was a need to bridge the worlds of those immersed in philanthropy and those shouting uninformed criticisms from the outside.

We’d hear these critics and people I knew in philanthropy would sit there and we’d say to each other, ‘yes, but they don’t seem to realise the history’ or ‘they don’t seem to realise what is going on.’ I basically got to the point where I thought, ‘well, instead of just sitting with my friends and complaining about it, I should write a book that sets it all out, because I don’t see who else is going to push back.’ I didn’t see that donors themselves could push back and say, ‘actually, I mean well.’ It’s hard to say that, and nobody really wants to hear people who’ve already got a ton of privilege sounding thin-skinned and defensive. That’s why I thought, ‘okay, I’ll do it.’ But my defence is not really written on behalf of the donors, it’s on behalf of the beneficiaries who, as I say, are all of us but in particular the vulnerable and those who are the most dependent on philanthropic support and will be most hurt if we just let this chorus of criticism go without a response.

Let’s look at some of these issues in more detail as we go through the books. Let’s start with Linsey McGoey’s 2015 book No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. Tell me about this book.

Linsey McGoey is a female academic, Canadian, but based in the UK. She wrote her critique of philanthropy before all the men did but, as is often the case, it’s the male voices that get heard first. I make sure my students read her book because it came out a few years before Rob Reich’s Just Giving and Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All and so on. And because it’s scholarly, it’s more robust than some of the more populist critiques.

The book is trying to understand what’s happening with the Gates Foundation but also some other big foundations. The argument she’s making is one that chimes with a lot of people, which is that there’s something in it for the donor: giving is self-interest dressed up as selflessness. As the title suggests, that there is no such thing as a free gift. What she argues is that, actually, the donor benefit is far more significant than observers might have thought. Now, personally, I think the longstanding scholarship on gift-giving has always noted the existence—indeed the necessity of—donor benefit, because that’s what propels reciprocity. Mixed motives are the norm—it’s tricky to give without getting something back.

I think we need to be realistic about the fact that reciprocity is a rare universal norm, as anthropologists and sociologists have long demonstrated. Even if you didn’t want the reputational kickback, you often can’t avoid it. But I understand the argument that people think something that is viewed as altruistic should be entirely selfless, entirely disinterested. McGoey does a good job of detailing what kind of benefits you can get if you have a profile and a reputation of being a big giver. That’s why I like the book. It’s a really good entry into contemporary criticisms of big, white male American philanthropy.

What are those benefits of being a donor that she outlines?

The main one would be reputation laundering. If you are in the news for your business practices, or people think of you as accumulating too much wealth, philanthropy can change people’s view of you, so that they see you as somebody more selfless. She talks about the PR moments of crowds of school kids waving ‘hurray for Gates’-type banners. Those things do happen. Now, whether they’re orchestrated—or even welcomed—by the donor is a different issue. Often they’re organised by the fundraisers who understand how reciprocity works and want to show thanks.

Now, there are certainly arguments that if a donor gets an uplift in their reputation, that’s a small price to pay socially for those millions of lives saved and the amount of money going in. Nonetheless, it’s completely legitimate to point out that if you are a high-profile philanthropist, that may help your reputation.

That reputation laundering is a classic feature of philanthropy historically is a point you make in your book. We’ve got the Rhodes scholarships here at the University of Oxford, we’ve got the Nobel Prizes which Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, set up after reading his own obituary. And it continues today. Should we be OK with that reputational uplift?

I think I would say there’s always a tradeoff. When I give blood, I get to wear a little sticker afterwards saying, ‘I gave blood today.’ If I donate some coins, I get to wear a poppy or a yellow daffodil. Reputation-enhancement happens at every level of charity donation, it’s not just mega-philanthropy that has this.

It’s a completely legitimate question to ask whether we are giving too much back to big donors. What kind of problems has that donor or their company caused in society? The same debates happen around Andrew Carnegie. Was he a good employer? Should he have put more money into wages rather than giving it away afterwards?

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That’s why I like Linsey’s book, because it raises these questions very well. She gives very detailed examples, rather than just a general claim that giving leads to reputation uplift. She’s much more specific. You get that when you have a case study. If you make very general claims—even within that incredibly small niche of mega-philanthropy in the US—you still get incredibly different characters, from the right-wing Koch brothers to the left-wing George Soros and everything in between. So just to pick one, to focus on one case study of the Gates Foundation, is, to my mind, better scholarship because it really helps to unpack the issues. Whether or not I agree with her take on the tradeoff is a different matter, but there is a tradeoff, and we have to acknowledge that.

In terms of the tradeoff, is it better the money goes to a good cause than that it doesn’t go to a good cause, in your view?

I don’t want to criticise other people for generalising and then generalise myself. But in many cases, the donor benefits are pretty insubstantial, and well worth encouraging rather than discouraging big giving. As Ben Whitaker wrote back in 1974: “Even if philanthropy is about trying to buy honour and prestige, it may well be the most constructive outlet that snobbery can take.” If lives are being saved and communities are being enhanced, does it really matter if the donors get to hang out with pop stars or a member of the royal family?

Some people say, ‘well, give anonymously, then’. There is a strong tradition of anonymous giving, but then that can cause problems itself. People ask why they are doing it secretly, why they are not being transparent. It’s one of many lose-lose scenarios in philanthropy: if you give publicly, people think you’re only doing it for publicity, if you give anonymously, people think there’s something dodgy going on.

Of the books that criticise philanthropy, do you prefer hers to later ones? Or do you think the later books need to be read as well, if somebody really wants to know about this sector?

We should engage with these texts. I disagree with them, and I argue back against them, but I don’t think that means they shouldn’t be read and thought about. I do find the populist critiques more problematic and devoid of value than the academic critiques, so I wouldn’t recommend them. Often, it’s cheap shots. Like all populism, it’s very simple ways of explaining very complex phenomena. Then they get talked about on social media. It really affects the students I teach. They ask, ‘aren’t all philanthropists idiots?’. Young inheritees will say, ‘I don’t believe in philanthropy anymore,’ and fundraisers will ask, ‘am I in the wrong job? I thought I was making the world a better place.’ That’s the problem I’m concerned with—that simplistic criticism discourages giving, demoralises those working in philanthropy, and ultimately harms beneficiaries when funding is inadequate.

“I felt there was a need to bridge the worlds of those immersed in philanthropy and those shouting uninformed criticisms from the outside”

The populist books don’t make you think about issues like whether there is a big reputational benefit to being a philanthropist, or whether it undermines democracy and political equality. My conclusion is that overall philanthropy is a net benefit. Other people writing thoughtful critiques might come to different conclusions but at least we’ve got some facts and figures and ideas to work with. I don’t think the populist books help take you on that journey, they just mock and encourage scorn and derision of big givers.

Let’s move on to Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. Tell me about this book and why you chose it.

I love this book. It’s beautifully written. He breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the reader and shares his personal experiences of working in philanthropy, even when those experiences are uncomfortable to write and read about. Some of it is autobiographical, about his experience of being a foundation leader and what it feels like to be in charge of money when you don’t have money yourself. As someone who also comes from a non-wealthy background, but finds myself in the world of extreme wealth, there is such truth in what and how he writes.

He’s also a clever phrase maker. For example, he talks about ‘money as medicine’—the idea that if money has come from a problematic source, such as exploitative and extractive practices— then you can, and should, use that wealth to heal the problems that it’s originally associated with.

I like books that have not just analysis, but also solutions. A lot of the critics’ books don’t. Rob Reich would say: ‘Here are the problems. It’s not my job to come up with solutions, I’m a political philosopher.’ But philanthropy is not an abstract concept, it is real, it’s something that people do, that affects people so much, that’s literally saving lives—we can’t just talk about it as an abstract concept. As scholars, I think we have a duty to follow up our analysis with solutions. If we set out the problem then we need to offer some ideas on what can be done about it. And I think that Edgar Villanueva really does that in this book. It’s beautiful in both its analysis and its solutions.

So the book is, again, more critical of philanthropy than you would be?

Yes, it is and that’s why I find it challenging, but enjoyably challenging. He’s talking about his specific experience in specific foundations, which again, can’t be generalised to all foundations. I personally think it is possible for money to come from non-extractive, non-exploitative sources. If you think of JK Rowling making money writing Harry Potter, or Anita Roddick with The Body Shop: what is it about ethically sourced peppermint foot balm that would cause us to worry about the source of that money? The idea that all wealth must necessarily come from exploitation—which is where this book pushes you to think—I don’t personally think is true. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think very, very carefully about those cases where there is a link.

Can you give an example of the kind of solution he advocates?

If money can be clearly traced to, say, slave trading, then the distribution of money ought to go to those communities that were affected. That seems to me a very reasonable and clear point. More recently, if the money has come from, say, the company that makes Oxycontin, it makes sense that there are branches of the Sackler family who give their money to drug addiction centres to help families deal with the opioid crisis. It’s trying to find ways to connect. It doesn’t mean that tainted money can’t be used for good, but it should perhaps, first and foremost, undo the harm it is connected to. That’s the ‘money as medicine’ idea.

Now the problem is that, often, the harm is much more amorphous than that. There are very few historic family fortunes in England, and probably the same in other countries, where you couldn’t find some part of the family that engaged in morally dubious activity. If that leads to the suggestion that such families can never support anything else today, that’s where I’d push back. There are still modern needs, and who would be funding COVID vaccine development or COVID relief at a food bank, if you only ever were repairing historic harms? Communities change and there are new needs that develop. It’s still worth doing other things.

“People want to help each other, it’s a human instinct to act morally”

But I love the idea that the trustees of the money—who could be many generations on, or might not even be descendants: sometimes these foundations become professionalised and you’ve got an entire staff—should trace a direct connection if they can. A really good development that’s happening now is foundations commissioning histories of their founder-donor, trying to understand where the money came from and having honest conversations about that. And I think Edgar Villanueva can take a lot of credit for that change. These histories were being commissioned anyway, but as a result of the energy he’s put in, foundations are taking his ideas seriously and no longer just looking for hagiographic biographies.

What I also like about Edgar Villanueva is he doesn’t just write about the problems as he sees it, he’s set up an initiative, called Liberated Capital, which is an attempt to do giving in the way he advocates. Often people are all analysis and no solutions but, as I said, philanthropy is something you live. If you’re saying that structurally everything is wrong, and philanthropy is part of that, what are you doing about it? He’s somebody who clearly is living what he’s writing.

Let’s go on to Giving to Help: Helping to Give: The Context and Politics of African Philanthropy, a volume edited by Tade Aina and Bhekinkosi Moyo. This is looking at what’s happening in African philanthropy. I’m really glad you included it because often debates about Africa and philanthropy seem to revolve around whether Western aid is ‘Dead Aid. Tell me about the book and why you like it.

I love this book because we have to have discourses on philanthropy that are beyond the US-UK axis. Scholars from those two countries currently dominate the definitions and how we think about philanthropy: so, for example, giving is primarily viewed as being top-down, ‘vertical philanthropy’, from the very rich to the very poor, often living in very distant communities.

My understanding of African philanthropy came originally from this book, and one of the utter privileges of my job is getting to know people like Bheki Moyo, the second author who is now the first chair in African philanthropy at Wits University in Johannesburg. I was lucky enough to go out to celebrate the opening of their Centre on African Philanthropy. I’ve learned so much from him and his colleagues. They talk about ‘horizontal philanthropy’, what we might call mutual aid. They would say that’s the defining way that philanthropy happens, not the Western, top-down philanthropy.

Some African scholars might even quarrel with the word ‘philanthropy’ and say that ‘gifting’ is a more appropriate concept. Some of this has trickled through to the general consciousness. For example, some people may have heard of ubuntu, this idea that ‘I am because you are.’ It’s a mutually dependent idea of humanity, that we help others because we’re all in this together. Another pan-African philosophy idea in the book that appeals to me is the Shona response to the greeting, ‘how are you?’, which is ‘I am well, if you are well’. It’s another version of ubuntu, that we’re all in this together and that is why we have, and need, broader traditions of how we behave and build community.

The book has got 16 chapters and goes far beyond the superficial point that things are done a bit differently in Africa, to give many wonderful empirical examples of, for example, Tanzanian fisherwomen and how they do philanthropy. It’s absolutely eye-opening and it’s essential reading for people who want to understand philanthropy as a global phenomenon. We need to encourage and embrace scholarship from across such a big continent, of nearly 1.4 billion people (if you compare that to the US, with only a third of a billion people). We need to hear more and more from other parts of the world, not just the US and the UK. That’s happening slowly, but it is happening and people like Bheki Moyo are absolutely at the forefront of that.

Is it already an important influence on how people in the US and the UK view philanthropy? Or is it just that there’s a lot to learn from these African concepts of philanthropy?

There’s a lot to learn, whether they’re learning them or not, I don’t know. That’s one of the reasons I want to lift up books like this one, because I learned so much from it. My students, when they read it, are astonished and delighted. They hadn’t realised there was such a rich literature on philanthropy from Africa. I don’t know if it’s come through yet, but I hope so. We need to engage with this scholarship.

Lastly, you’ve chosen two books that give insight into the historical role of philanthropy. Let’s start with Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow by Tyrone McKinley Freeman. Tell me about this book.

Tyrone is a scholar at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indiana, which is one of the biggest physical gatherings of philanthropy scholars. That’s why the US dominates, because most universities teach courses on nonprofits and philanthropy. In the UK that’s a very recent development, in the last 20 years or so and, in other parts of the world, it’s barely begun.

Tyrone makes a crucial contribution by pointing out: “One cannot study the history of African Americans without encountering their philanthropy; it is unfortunate one can study the history of philanthropy without encountering African Americans.” It’s such a brilliant and obviously true sentence. What he does in this book is give you one really detailed case study. I really like detail and I admire historians and he really tells us about Madam C. J. Walker.

Now, some readers might know about Madam C. J. Walker from the Netflix series, Self Made, starring Octavia Spencer. That was very much about her wealth accumulation. It’s a fascinating life story. She made her money in cosmetics and was the first female Black millionaire. She’s an incredible character. What Tyrone does is tell you about her wealth distribution, or how her philanthropy and her activism permeated her life.

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She was born Sarah Breedlove, the first freeborn child of enslaved people. She came from a world of need, and it links to Bheki’s book: it’s this horizontal philanthropy, she knew what she was giving to. She’s not Bill Gates giving to countries far away (which I still think is a good thing), but it’s giving within your own experience, which actually is the more common form of philanthropy. In the UK, every year Cancer Research UK is the top cause because everyone knows someone who’s had cancer. People primarily give to what they know, philanthropy is personal.

Tyrone’s book reminds us of that because that’s Madam C. J. Walker’s kind of giving. She supports all kinds of different causes, whether it’s schools for African American children, or paying the legal defence of African Americans who are wrongly charged with murder or serious crimes. She pays off the last $500 of the mortgage on Cedar Hill, the house of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and statesman, so it could stay in the family and become a memorial. She got to burn the mortgage papers at a public meeting. Great PR stunt!

Going back to the spectrum between giving publicly/giving anonymously, Madam C. J. Walker was very much at the public end. Like Bill Gates in McGoey’s telling, there was no such thing as a ‘free gift’ to her. She’s saying,’ Look, this is what I’ve done.’ I think that we can—and should—interpret that as role modelling, encouraging her employees to give, and encouraging fellow African Americans to claim their ability to make change. As Tyrone writes in the book, her kind of works and activism provide “important ways of seeing black women as agents who staked claims for their own humanity and citizenship in the face of seemingly impossible odds.” She promotes, and illustrates, the idea of impoverished Black women as powerful agents, through philanthropy, rather than passive victims or beneficiaries.

It’s sad she died so young, at 51.

She packed a lot into those 51 years, though. The other thing to mention here is that philanthropists don’t have to be saints wearing sackcloths and ashes. She clearly was a real spendthrift—she enjoyed fancy cars and throwing parties. At the end of the book, it talks about her attempt to leave a big legacy, but she couldn’t do that because she had spent so much in her lifetime. Her story helps flesh out another struggle that recurs in criticisms of philanthropy—the idea that if you give money away it’s incompatible to also want and have nice things for yourself.

If you’re trying to help save lives in Africa, why would you spend anything on a nice house or throw big parties? Or, in our own lives, we think, ‘every time I buy a coffee, or have another avocado sourdough toast, that money could have paid for an anti-malaria net.’ We should all think about the value of money—not just big donors. There really isn’t anyone who only gives and spends nothing on themselves. If the critics of the Bill and Melinda Gates or Mark Zuckerberg-type philanthropy read more broadly, they would see that these tensions are universal. You could pick any big donor and knock them for their lifestyle choices. I think that would be unfair because it would be overlooking the good that they’ve also done, both directly through their giving, but also through their role modelling.

The role modelling for Madam C.J. Walker was trying to make sure her employees and her neighbors thought about giving. For Bill and Melinda Gates, it was setting up the Giving Pledge. It’s not just that they’ve done their giving, but they’re trying to encourage other fellow billionaires to give. That, again, takes us to the ‘how do you do that without then also getting the reputational uplift?’ They’re unavoidable, these tensions.

To me, Bill and Melinda Gates are interesting because, yes, they’ve given a lot of money, but they’ve also given a lot of time. They could have spent the last 20 years sitting in a deckchair. Instead, they’re leading very busy lives, trying to save the world.

Yes, the practice and personal education required for philanthropy is time-consuming. Big donors may have made a lot of money in the for-profit period of their life but that doesn’t mean they know anything about global health, or how to run a museum, or whatever their chosen cause might be. Critics seem unaware that many donors work hard to educate themselves. The idea of the ‘armchair philanthropist’ carelessly writing big checks to causes he knows nothing about, is not how it happens. Not everybody gives up their first job and becomes a full-time philanthropist like Bill Gates did, but many of them do educate themselves and develop ‘domain expertise’. Having picked a cause to focus on, donors tend to want to learn about it, to meet experts, go into the labs, visit these countries. Critical observers seem unaware of that side of what philanthropists do, the personal investment of their time and passion in their causes, it’s not just cheque-writing. Donors have to be open to challenge and to collaboration. They know they can’t achieve anything significant without working with other donors, with government bodies, and with the people delivering the work on the ground. Donors are always a partner with do-ers. This idea that philanthropy is just big money being waved around by tax-dodging egotists is so far removed from the reality of the daily grind of building partnerships and collaborations and slowly making things happen, and sometimes taking steps backwards. It’s not just about the money, it takes a lot of time and personal investment to make any significant change happen.

When you look at critiques of philanthropy, do you think there are differences in how people regard it geographically? That’s it’s more accepted in the US than in Europe, say?

I do think the critiques land better in some places than in others. I’ve certainly had people say to me: ‘Why on earth do you think that philanthropy needs defending? Of course it’s a good thing!’ And I say: ‘Great, I’m so happy that you feel that way, and long may that last in your part of the world.’ But unfortunately, critical ideas spread easily, even when they don’t really hold water beyond their original context. What’s frustrating is most critiques are about very specifical American issues, like the role of money in politics, or university admissions. When people in the UK repeat those criticisms I remind them that we’ve got pretty strong laws in the UK about what you can and can’t donate to, and robust regulation and policies on what benefits donors can get. Another classic US concern that gets extrapolated across the world is when philanthropy has to step in to compensate for low levels of public spending on essential services such as health and education. It isn’t a failure of philanthropy that the US has no equivalent of the National Health Service, or that public schools in that country are funded through local taxes which results in exacerbating inequality. These are instances of government failure, not philanthropic failure.

We use the same word, philanthropy, whether we’re talking about private giving in Australia, San Francisco or London, and yet donations are treated very differently, legally and fiscally. Tax breaks are often assumed to be the same everywhere, but there are many countries where they’re minimal, or there are no tax breaks at all. So to say that all donors are motivated by their hope of a tax break simply can’t be true. Even in the UK, a lot of the tax break goes to the charity, not the donor. It’s only higher and additional-rate taxpayers that receive tax relief, and often the relief is factored into their gift. If they want their chosen charity to receive £1 million, they give £800k. But they are still £800,000 “down” on the deal! The role of charity tax reliefs is not as simple as people imagine, that’s really the basic message of my book. It is all a lot more complicated and nuanced than critics make out.

Can you say a bit more about the critique that philanthropists are carrying out activities that really should be provided by the state? A public playground, say. In the Netherlands, that will normally be provided by the local government, whereas here in England, there’s often philanthropy involved. Why is that?

Every country provides different things, via the state or via businesses. Philanthropy can fill in the gaps—the ‘failures’ of governments and markets—but it also does so much more: complementing and co-operating with government action, adding the ‘icing on the cake’ that elected bodies would never fund. The precise role that philanthropy plays changes across countries and, of course, it also changes over time. You wouldn’t now need philanthropic water pumps in village squares. But historically, at one point, you did need those. Now water is provided through different means.

But, to my mind, if we think ‘gosh, that playground should have been funded by the government’ it seems odd to blame the donor for paying for it rather than blame the government for not providing it. I think the blame is being laid in the wrong places. It is often government failure. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some philanthropic failure in how it’s done. Perhaps the donor wouldn’t listen to what kind of playground the kids wanted, or it was put in the wrong place, or they wanted inappropriate naming recognition. Of course, philanthropy can be done badly. But the very fact of there being a need for a playground in the area that no one else is providing is not the donor’s fault. Much of the scholarly criticism of philanthropy seems to be laying the blame in the wrong place.

Right now, where I live, we have problems with traffic jams and pollution caused by inadequate infrastructure, but the local council doesn’t have the money to solve them. Now a local charity (chaired by my husband) has stepped in and paid for an initial study of whether a train line could be a solution. Where does it stop, though—are we going to end up with individuals financing public transport in the UK? And is that a good idea?

Often the philanthropic motivation is exactly what you describe: frustration, even anger, with how things are. Some critics worry that encouraging philanthropy will lead inevitably to ‘plutocracy’—the rule of the wealthy, rather than democratic rule—but I’ve never met a donor who actually wants to take over funding and delivering government functions. They want good things to happen and, if need be, they’re willing to pay for a feasibility study to get it going. They have no wish to become glorified public servants or to run a railway. That’s not the goal because, in any case, they can’t afford to do it forever—committing every descendant of theirs to run this train line, or whatever it might be. They just want to inject some capital now to deal with bottlenecks, like a feasibility study for a new train line.

Again, there’s a debate about whether that’s fair, because someone else might have a better idea, but not have the resources to put behind it. That’s a legitimate question. But the fear that’s being stoked by critics, that we’re going to live in a plutocracy, is utterly overblown. It sounds like a criticism made by someone who’s never met a donor. They’re angry they have to pay because they want a good train service and need to take action to make it happen.

Yes, and I suppose for Bill and Melinda Gates, looking around the world and seeing kids dying because of something that could have been prevented by spending, say, $1 on a vaccination, that certainly would prompt frustration and anger about a gap that governments or other organisations weren’t fulfilling, rather than some of the conspiracy theories that are swirling around about their motives.  

When Bill Gates started his philanthropic work he made a speech in which he pointed out that the amount of money that’s spent on developing solutions to baldness far outstrips the amount of money being spent on all kinds of quite simple, preventable illnesses killing kids under the age of five in Africa. That’s just wrong and we need to tackle it. Philanthropists like the Gateses are making a profound moral statement—that every life is equal, and that preventing avoidable deaths should be a global priority—which I think we need to take seriously. If they say that’s their motivation, who are we to say it’s not? Who are we to say it was actually about some other, more dubious motivation?

“There’s a difference between good and useful critique, and just rubbishing people and derogating socially useful acts”

When I think of my own reasons for making a donation—like sponsoring a friend running a marathon or putting coins in a tin and then wearing a charity sticker—how pure is my motivation? Did I care solely about the cause with no consideration at all for my friendship, or my reputation? When my students get involved in volunteering, is it purely selfless, or do they also have an eye on building up their CV? We all have mixed motives that we can’t always fully understand and explain. To those who think that only those giving large donations have problematic motives, I’d say that just as we’re all philanthropic, we all also have problematic motivations.

You’re pushing back against critiques of philanthropy in your book, but surely it’s good that we’re critical? Or has it gone too far?

As an academic, I can’t argue with the value of good critique. But there’s a difference between good and useful critique, and just rubbishing people and derogating socially useful acts. We’ve got to try to differentiate. We’ve got longstanding problems with donor motivation, with philanthropic impact, with the implications it has for possible systemic change. In some cases, we have to accept there is a tension, or that something is irresolvable. These are good debates to have.

But we can’t get lost in these debates and forget that people are hungry right now, climate change is happening right now, a town needs a new museum or a theatre, many good causes need funding now to continue their work. We need to separate out abstract debates from the pragmatic reality of where we are at any given time, which does actually take us to the fifth book.

Yes. Your final book is by Joan-Marie Johnson and it’s called Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy and the Women’s Movement 1870-1967. Why is this book important?

I mentioned earlier that some people want to cancel billionaires and also cancel billionaire giving. I don’t think it is possible to cancel private generosity. Even in communist states, when you weren’t allowed any private initiatives beyond the control of the state, people still found ways around it. People want to help each other. It’s a human instinct to act morally. But let’s say it was possible to cancel philanthropy or billionaire philanthropy. As many others have pointed out, the first price would be paid by the most marginalised and vulnerable people, which often is women around the world.

The availability of contraception and abortion, in many countries, is funded through philanthropy, people like Warren Buffett. I read an article about how women’s reproductive rights rely heavily on philanthropy. In the UK, that’s all provided by the NHS—it goes back to the point about different countries having different gaps for philanthropy to fill—but in the US philanthropy is a key provider of contraception and abortion services. I found the source book for that claim was Joan-Marie Johnson’s book, and I gobbled it up in the same way that I enjoyed the other historical studies.

Before reading it, I had not appreciated the extent to which some wealthy women have used their privilege, including their monetary power, to make positive change happen for all women. This idea that philanthropy is power is often said as if that’s obviously a bad thing: any use of power is necessarily an abuse of power. What Johnson shows is that, yes, people do have power with resources, but you can use it well. Her book includes the powerful example of Mary Garrett, who offered to fund the medical school at Johns Hopkins University, but only if women students were allowed to enter on equal terms with male applicants, and become doctors. Imposing that condition was clearly an example of a wealthy donor exerting financial power, but I think we would all agree today that was a good use of power. Johns Hopkins didn’t let women students in because it was the right thing to do, they were forced to do so in order to receive the funding they wanted.

Joan Marie Johnson charts the many ways that women’s education, career prospects, control over their reproductive systems, and ability to vote have all been dependent, at various times, on wealthy women being allies of all women. We appreciate the power of allyship in other areas of life. I think philanthropy could be usefully viewed as one way that people of wealth sometimes act as allies, rather than being viewed through a more negative lens.

What I hope to achieve with my book is to get across the idea that, while it might seem quite satisfying to criticise rich people, we need to think it through and be sure we understand the consequences of damaging the reputation of generosity. We think we know what charity and philanthropy are because they are such a common part of everyday life. But private giving is a lot more complicated than it appears, and its impact may be more positive and significant than we give it credit for. A woman somewhere may lose access to contraception, or a child somewhere may not get a vaccination. We need to be more careful and nuanced when we criticise philanthropy. I hope my book helps to highlight the positive role that philanthropy has played, and can continue to play, and that it makes critics more aware of the unintended consequence for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, when we think we’re just having an enjoyable pop at rich donors.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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Beth Breeze

Beth Breeze

Beth Breeze is the Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. She began her career working for a youth homelessness charity, and spent a decade working in fundraising and charity management. Over the past 15 years she has led numerous research studies focused on philanthropy, including interviews with over 100 ‘major donors’ who have made gifts worth $1 million or more.

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Beth Breeze

Beth Breeze

Beth Breeze is the Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. She began her career working for a youth homelessness charity, and spent a decade working in fundraising and charity management. Over the past 15 years she has led numerous research studies focused on philanthropy, including interviews with over 100 ‘major donors’ who have made gifts worth $1 million or more.