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Suspicion lingers about giving to good cause

Resource type: News

The Irish Times |

It is too easy to assume that donations from social entrepreneurs are driven by all the wrong motives, writes SARAH CAREY.

Original Source

THERE’S NOTHING that depresses me more than cynicism. I can be harsh, but it tends to come from anger or disappointment. Cynicism begets a kind of harshness that is deeply destructive to a person and a society. The sad thing is that cynics sound authoritative, so they get a good audience. Sometimes that’s because they’re right. Possessing the insight to divine base motives behind outward goodness is a useful trait. I’ve often been distressed and vaguely humiliated to discover someone I thought was doing good was simply playing to an agenda I’d failed to see. Despite the frequency with which this occurs, I’d still prefer to die naive and hopeful rather than bitter and twisted.

The pervasiveness of the cynic struck me as I read a particular book last week. When launched in the US, its title was Philanthrocapitalism – How The Rich Can Save The World . It’s about how billionaires like Bill Gates and Chuck Feeney are spending their fortunes to solve global problems.

When the book was published in Europe, the title was changed to Philanthrocapitalism – How The Rich Can Save the World and Why We Should Let Them . The first title was too much for the cynics who had plenty to say about rich blokes trying to do good.

The authors, Michael Green and Matthew Bishop, realised that explaining how and why the rich can solve problems was not enough. They had to complicate a sub-title to almost farcical proportions to overcome this deep suspicion of the rich. Bill Gates spending his fortune trying to cure malaria? Ha! It’s not enough for some to criticise how he’s doing it, which is legitimate. In an effort to turn a moral act into an immoral one, some feel it necessary to question his motives. Too many people are determined to believe that great wealth automatically defines an individual as inherently evil. It’s an ignorant perspective.

This suspicion of rich people doing good things is particularly prevalent in Europe where we have different ideas to Americans about the social contract. We think governments should solve society’s problems and it is up to the super-rich to pay taxes to fund those solutions. I share those doubts, but the more I meet social entrepreneurs and philanthrocapitalists, the more I’m convinced there are things governments don’t do very well.

Private organisations are great at problem solving and risk taking. That applies to social and business problems. A good system is one where entrepreneurs try out solutions to social problems and if they work, then public money can follow private. If they do not work, no taxpayer money has been lost.

It is too easy for critics to question and undermine philanthropy. It’s tax deductible; it provides access to celebrities or a place for a stupid child in an Ivy League college. It’s motivated by guilt, religion or, according to neuroscientists, because it stimulates dopamine and is chemically proven to make you happy. Almost the only people who say philanthropists give because it’s the right thing to do are the donors and the recipients.

The most common charge is that they are showing off. You can see how ostentatious generosity would provoke resentment. Announcing to the world that one intends to give away $31 billion as Bill Gates did, or $37 billion in the case of Warren Buffet is a pretty good effort in alpha male chest thumping. The poor little omega males are bound to be upset at this display of surplus wealth. Why, ask the cynics, don’t they do it in secret? There are two reasons not to do it secretly. One is transparency. Since Gates and Buffet are spearheading a movement that redistributes billions of dollars, it is imperative that it is done publicly. Given the power their money bestows, the obligation to give transparently is as great as the obligation to give.

George Soros, who donates to political causes, says those who are worried that philanthropy is simply a veneer for plutocracy should question his motives. He uses his donations – $6 billion – to influence how governments spend money. “When I claim to be disinterested, the burden of proof is on me. It’s very important to have transparency as the basis on which a judgment can be made.” The world needs changing and the rich can do it, but secrecy would be positively dangerous.

The other reason not to distribute money under the table is the competitive edge publicity brings to philanthropy. Chuck Feeney used to make secrecy a condition of accepting donations. He focuses on third-level institutions but there are no buildings or libraries named after him. He made his identity known only after he was persuaded that doing so would persuade other wealthy individuals to become philanthropists. Going public wasn’t about vanity. The publicity creates pressure on others to step up.

Still, the suspicions linger. The book’s authors say: “Judging by some of the criticisms, it may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to win three unqualified cheers from the public.” We have to stop assuming the rich are devils. No one’s perfect, but they might be angels in disguise.

© 2009 The Irish Times

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