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#355 – Philanthropy Can and Must Do a Lot – But We Cannot and Should Not Do it All

November 4th, 2019

Richard Marker

Reader alert: This post, as in #354, has a very clear political point of view, at least at the beginning. You may wish to read #354 prior to this one.

This piece is difficult to write since I have so much disregard and antipathy for the current administration. An article advocating a crucial role for government, as this one will, must therefore take a leap of faith that some sense of normalcy and affirmation of civil society will return to the United States in due course. So, onward….

Since the Reagan years, politicians have been running on the concept that taxes are bad, and that government shouldn’t be expected to provide for its citizens. [except of course for their own very generous benefits!] Many others, especially in the private, for-profit sector, argue that the profit motive will almost always prove a more reliable incentive than altruism and will do so far more efficiently than the government can.

Well, it is not hyperbole that we as a society are paying a huge price for these years of cutbacks. Students haven’t been taught about the Constitution and rank well below the top 10 countries in tested learning; frighteningly large segments of the society believe that science, including on climate change, is merely political opinion; homelessness is on the rise throughout the country; the US healthcare system – yes that famous private system – is the most expensive in the world with far too many inadequately insured, and there are still those who believe it should be exclusively a private responsibility…. And it isn’t getting better.

As a quondam educator about the history of American philanthropy, I would be the first to acknowledge that the issue of who should have responsibility for what is as old as the US, and people can have legitimately differing opinions about which sector should be accountable for which parts. And there is a long and legitimate tradition of those in our philanthropy sector who will affirm that private philanthropy’s value added is that it need not be bureaucratically handcuffed, that it can respond to needs without political interference or a plebiscite, and it can take risks that government cannot and should not take. The idea of private philanthropy as society’s risk capital is a continuing and honorable theme.

There is certainly validity to those arguments – as far as they go. They fail, in my opinion, when they make two derivative arguments: that in the absence of government funding, private philanthropy should fill in the gaps, and that private philanthropy has the capacity to do so.

It is hard to overstate how the latter arguments are flawed. There are many “proof texts”: The largest private foundation in the world has an endowment of about $50B with a grantmaking budget of about $5-6B; compare that with the budget of the NIH – itself having suffered cutbacks over the years: as of this year, its annual budget is over $30B.

Or to put it another way, if those in the congress who wish to cut SNAP funding – the most important public initiative to reduce food insecurity – were to have their way, the amount of cutbacks alone would be greater than the sum of the endowments of all US foundations. Examples abound.

Or to put it another way, a private sector company worth $50B would be so far down the list that it would only be the 110th largest company in terms of value. And very few of the other top foundations would crack the Fortune 500 list. Imagine the naivete in thinking that this sector can have the resources to solve society’s systemic challenges alone or replace government funding.

It is true that foundation funding trails individual giving, so the true capacity of private philanthropy may be greater than this. But, even so, nowhere near the need.

But even if it could, the real question is: should it? After all, the very nature of private philanthropy is that it is not accountable to a plebiscite and that it has no obligation to respond to all of society’s needs even when not popular. There is nothing, other than good will, that would guarantee that the highest risk populations are not forgotten, or that there would be socially responsible standards for health, education, and more. If history is any indication, many of the wealthiest are perfectly happy to give their largest gifts to the most secure and prestigious organizations, universities, museums, and hospitals – and to underfund others. [Yes, I know these are gross generalizations and this giving is under severe attack in some circles, but the long-term numbers bear out the generalizations.]

Do we really want a society where retirement funds are fully subject to our own private investment acumen? That our health care depends on how much we can manage to pay and too bad for us if we cannot? That educational institutions only offer art or athletics or specialized attention if they are in wealthy neighborhoods?… In a country with 350 million residents, such a financially driven system of human services and health care and education is morally suspect and of dubious efficacy.

What about our role, then? We do have an obligation to fund that which government is not yet willing to do such as take risks, advocate for systemic solutions, utilize our unique vantage of not being subject to quarterly reports or biennial election to fund over time and with limited political overhang. We have the ability to bridge sectors, to develop new models, to leverage our resources even if they are more limited than many assume, and to be a moral voice of values.

Not all of us will agree on how to use our resources, for what we should advocate, who should be allowed to decide, and what the ultimate role of government will be in all of this. But we, more than any other sector, should be able to model those dialectics in ways that ennoble our society, despite or because of our disagreements – quite the opposite of the denigrating cesspool that surrounds the current administration.

Government funding alone won’t solve the morass we are in but honoring the legitimacy of taxes is a start. And, let’s be honest, if our sector doesn’t acknowledge our ability to help influence those policies, policies that reinforce why we exist and what we can do, then we are only playing into the hands of those who would either trivialize our role, or worse, magnify it beyond comprehension or credibility. Either way, we, and society as a whole, will be much the worse for it.

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