Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Is Educational Philanthropy Jumbo Shrimp?

The announcement that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife intend to give away $45 billion in Facebook stock raises all sorts of questions, including this one:

Does anybody even understand what philanthropy is any more?

The word means "love of humanity," and the idea goes back-- way back. Early philanthropic efforts often cited include Plato's bequest of a farm to support students and faculty at his school, and Pliny (the Younger, not the old guy) giving one-third the cost of a school for Roman students. So yes-- philanthropy has been mucking around schools forever. (Said Pliny, arguing for Roman schools for Roman students, "You cannot make your children a more handsome present than this, nor can you do your native place a better turn. Let those who are born here be brought up here, and from their earliest days accustom them to love and know every foot of their native soil.")

We've had philanthropy in this country as long as we've had a country, often synonymous with "charity" and the idea of giving money to people who need it, either directly or through some do-gooding church or charitable organization.

We generally consider John. D. Rockefeller the grand-daddy of modern philanthropy (and to his credit, Rockefeller was a philanthropist before he was a rich guy). Once he became a rich guy, he hired people and started organizations to help him manage the giving away of money "scientifically." (One group led in 1928 to the Brookings Foundation). Rockefeller's system became one of finding smart people who could figure out how to solve an issue, giving them a bunch of money, and leaving them alone.

Rich Guy Philanthropy has always been a bit subject to... cognitive dissonance. Like many Carnegie biographies, this one by David Nasaw juxtaposes Andrew Carnegie's advice to his workers that they pursue learning and leisure activities and read more-- even as he demanded that they work ten hours a day, seven days a week. Carnegie's generous gift of libraries to communities across the country stands side by side with his iron-fisted refusal to pay his workers decent wages.

Rich Guy Philanthropy has always struggled with a central contradiction: If rich guys want to make life better for ordinary folks, they could start with the ordinary folks who work to make them rich.

Rockefeller's idea of business-style scientific philanthropy grew and evolved, but somewhere along the way, we completely lost the idea of philanthropy at all.

If you give an organization like a school or a hospital or a sports team a whole bunch of money in order to build a facility with your name on it, that's not philanthropy. That's advertising. Nobody looks at a building with TRUMP in huge gold letters on the side and thinks, "Wow, what a great, giving humanitarian." Why should that work differently if, instead of building the big TRUMP building himself, he gave someone else money to do it for him?

In fact, modern philanthropists have strangely confused "giving money to improve the life of human beings" with "hiring some people to do work that you want to have done."

This 2006 article about Philanthrocapitalism lays out many of the principles that the new breed feels need to take the place of the old Rockefeller-style foundations. Invest IN something. Set up infrastructure. Add value.

Hacker Philanthropy (as laid out by Sean Parker, napster co-founder), isn't really philanthropy at all. It's a process of putting yourself in charge of something and then imposing your idea of a solution on the problem, confident that your outsider mindset allows you to see what the weakness is and "disrupt" it.

The classic view of philanthropy, the one most commonly shared by givers who aren't filthy rich, is that you find people who are doing something worthwhile, and you help them do it. But in current Rich Guy Philanthropy, you decide the solution you want to implement, and then you hire people direct your giving toward that goal.

Classic philanthropy was a gift. Modern philanthropy is "impact investment." Classic philanthropy was a gift, free and clear. Modern philanthropy comes with many, many strings attached. I will give you money-- to do what I want in the manner I direct. That's not a gift. That's hire and salary.

Michael Massing looks at Bill Gates as an example of this new giving style, leaning on the book No Such Thing As A Free Gift by Linsey McGoey. And we know how that's gone-- Bill Gates decided that schools should be smaller, so he used funding to grow a bunch of organizations to implement and study that solution. Then he became convinced that Common Core would fix schools, so he threw a bunch of money at that, creating organizations to implement and promote his preferred solution. (Also, I love McGoey for her coinage "philanthrocapitalist")

What makes this philanthropy?

If Gates hired a bunch of computer programmers to form a work group that designed a new music storage-and-playing device, nobody would call that philanthropy. But if Gates hires a bunch of thought leaders and PR specialists to promote CCSS, that's philanthropy? How?

Is it because there's no obvious profit involved, or is it because Gates has taken charge of a portion of the public sector?

Zuckerberg's "gift" has folks looking back at his previous foray into philanthropy-- his ill-fated attempt to help fix Newark. Jordan Weissman at Slate is "optomistic that Mark Zuckerberg won't mess up this philanthropy thing." His optimism is based in I'm-not-sure-what, but he seems to believe that after Z's adventures in Newark, the cyber-mogul would have learned a thing or two. His evidence is that Zuckerberg's huge donation to Bay Area schools was more incremental and focused-- but it was once again framed as, "Here are the solutions we're hiring you to implement." [Update. Several critics have noted that Zuckerberg's generosity isn't all that generous anyway.]

But David Auerbach at Slate takes a more measured look, also noting that Gates's attempt to make himself the unelected School Board Chairman of America has not logged many (or even any) successes. Auerbach does make one point in philanthrocapitalism's favor-- it at least is not more of the Let's Buy Ourselves Some Senators investment strategy of Ken Griffin or the Koch Brothers.

Except. Except that, slowly but surely, the two are becoming the same thing. Charters have become a magnet for philanthrocapitalists who can do well while doing good. "I'm building a school and making a bundle," is the new -- well, can we even call it philanthropy at this point? And those philanthropists are willing to go the Koch route with their giving. Consider the news from LA, where a PAC was used to hide the investment of charter backers in getting three charter-friendly school board candidates elected. Among those on the list are "philanthropist Eli Broad," whose "philanthropy" seems to consist entirely of hiring people to push his personal agenda and build his personal power.

So we finally arrive at a point where the word "philanthropy" means absolutely nothing at all. Hell, Donald Trump is a philanthropist. Vladamir Putin is a philanthropist. Every time I pay my phone bill, I'm a philanthropist. Apparently any time you give anybody any money for any reason, you're a philanthropist.

Look-- here's the rule. If you are giving money to somebody with the expectation that they will carry out your instructions, further your agenda, owe you compliance and assistance, or complete a project you've assigned them-- you're not a philanthropist. If your giving is designed to give you power or control over an aspect of public life in our country-- you're not a philanthropist.

You know what else happened over the weekend? A couple dropped a check for $500,000 in a Salvation Army kettle. And then when news outlets wanted to follow up on the story, they insisted on remaining anonymous. And they didn't tell the Salvation Army how to spend it, what to spend it on, or where to put their name on the side of the building. They just remembered how hard life was when they couldn't get enough to eat, so they were hoping they could help other humans in similar dire straits. I may or may not love the Salvation Army, but I know an anonymous philanthropist when I see one or two.

I wish there were more of them.


  1. I would say that Julies Rosenwald was a philanthropist even though he gave money to somebody in the expectation that they would further his agenda. He even required the local community to match his donation with public funds and local labor to maintain the schools. In the end the Rosenwald fund helped build nearly 5,000 schools, over 200 houses for teachers, and over 150 shop buildings across the south to enhance the education of rural African Americans.

    Agreeing with an agenda doesn't mean that it is not an agenda.

  2. This is brilliant. I work in fundraising for a nonprofit and wondered why that news didn't sit well with me; this is why.

  3. Thank you for this. You have a knack for taking a widely accepted idea (billionaire "philanthropy" a la Gates and Zuckerberg is a good and noble thing) and taking it apart to show why exactly the opposite is true. After reading such a piece it seems so obvious.

  4. Its one thing to be anonymouse wrt an NGO, as you one can research their mission and make the call to support or not support them. Alas, in the philantrophy / public arena, what far too often happens is that state / local govt looks at it as a no strings gift, and proceeds to reduce their contribution to the pie (in this case education) in favor of tax cuts or econ development or whatever their pet project is, thus thwarting the intent of the giver. As this has happened on so many public/private entities, I can't blame givers for adding a bunch of strings, and/or taking control / directing things themselves.

  5. Found this linked over at Fred Klonsky's blog:

    Even more reasons why there is nothing "charitable" about this "donation".

  6. If what NPR said this morning is true, this may not even be philanthropy in any sense. The report is that Zuckerburg is not setting up a foundation or non-profit, but a regular for-profit company so it can evade the many rules surrounding non-profits, such as lobbying for new laws, investing in the companies he thinks have the product/solution, and so on. By the way, he's not giving that 99% of wealth immediately. That will take place over a lifetime. Plenty of time to change his mind.

  7. Excellent points, as always. It's like Dienne says, you shine a light on a subject from a different perspective to reveal things that aren't apparent from the conventional angle.

  8. In an essay titled "Objections to Charity," G. K. Chesterton draws much the same distinctions you have drawn. "To give any present worth calling a present is to give power; to give power is to give liberty." Power and liberty are certainly not what modern philanthropists want to give anyone who isn't them. In other places, Chesterton (a Catholic) pointed out that the modern notion of "philanthropy" was much removed from the Christian virtue of charity. Charity is to give freely to those who need and expect nothing in return. Philanthropy is to give to people you deem deserving and only if they follow your dictums. Christ: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." Modern philanthropist: "When you give with your right hand, make sure the left hand is raking in good ROI."

  9. Of course if power and liberty were granted to the southern school boards, no schools for African American students would have been built with Rosenwald's money.

    Do you really think that would have been the right outcome?

    1. Actually, I left out a clause from that quote. The final clause is, "to give liberty is to give potential sin." No, I do not believe that segregation and racism are a right outcome. But I do believe that liberty is good in itself, even when we abuse it. Chesterton's essay was written in response to criticism of a man who had given away his money to the poor, literally on the street. Critics argued that he would not then know what these poor people would DO with that money. Chesterton argued, in essence, that (1) we often make this argument about the poor, but not as often about the wealthy; and (2) we seem not to recognize that we ourselves are also liable to abuse a gift. He comments that while he may not know what happens to the money given to someone in need, he also does not know what happens to the ham sandwich he gives himself. In other words, he admits to being just as liable to sin as any other man. Either we believe in liberty or we do not. Of course people will abuse it, and it is up to all of us to both attempt to correct the abuse and avoid abuse ourselves, which is not easy. But if liberty is an objective good, we ought to promote and give it; if we want to control outcomes and concentrate power, we are rejecting liberty.

    2. J Chaffee,

      I certainly agree that giving money directly to the poor is a good idea and often speak up about the merits of expanding the earned income tax credit. I think most economists hold this view. If you want to put that into practice you might consider donating to GiveDirectly, an organization founded by economists that transfers funds directly to very poor households in Africa.

      Rosenwald, however, was not giving to individual poor rural African American households, but to institutions who's mission was to educate the citizens of the district. I think you would agree that without conditions attached to those donations, the local school boards were unlikely to carry out their duty to educate African American children in the district and would likely have used those donations in ways that did not help educate those most in need of education. While I certainly believe in individual liberty of citizens, I do not believe individuals when they are in their roles as members of institutions have the same right to liberty.

      If i were giving Mr. Zuckerberg advice about charitable giving to institutions, I would ask him to remember that the individuals making decisions in the institution have their own set of interests that are not necessarily aligned with the stated mission of the organization.

  10. Is Educational Philanthropy Jumbo Shrimp? Nope. Not in Zuckerberg's case any way. It's a fairy tale based on his name: Zucker = candy; Berg = mountain. Thus, the hobo's hymn, The Big Rock Candy Mountains.
    "In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
    You never change your socks
    And the little streams of alcohol
    Come trickling down the rocks
    The brakemen have to tip their hats
    And the railway bulls are blind
    There's a lake of stew
    And of whiskey too
    You can paddle all around it
    In a big canoe
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains"

    For a listen to the whole song and the complete promises of mister Candymountainman, go to: