“Philanthropy,” Oscar Wilde once observed, “is the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures.” To social work professor David Wagner, even that is apparently too generous a view.
To Wagner, within all philanthropists lurk moral zealots, eager to impose their own views of proper behavior on those they are pretending to help. Not altruism, but self-interest and greed motivate their actions. Even the saintliest, such as Mother Teresa, seem to him less concerned about helping the poor than policing and preaching to them.
Charity, argues Wagner, is really about giving donors “opportunities for redemption, coping with guilt, and showing off,” not addressing society’s problems. That is why, he claims, its record of accomplishment in alleviating poverty and other social ills is such a spotty one. What’s needed instead is radical political program, aimed at redistributing income from the haves to the have-nots, so that the latter can take care of their problems themselves.
This is not a new idea, nor an entirely misguided one. Philanthropy does enable those with money to promote their visions for society, no matter how noble or narrow-minded they might be. Likewise, the desires for respect, fame, adulation, or just good seats at the opera—not simply philanthropos, or love of mankind —undoubtedly drive more than a small share of giving. And as Wagner notes, many of today’s nonprofit organizations are so commercial in their operations that they act more like businesses than charities.
Still, where Wagner and other critics of philanthropy go astray is in thinking that self-serving motives cannot produce public-serving results. Often, in fact, the best philanthropy has stemmed from just such motives.
The 19th Century reformers, such as Charles Loring Brace and Josephine Shaw Lowell, whom (like Mother Teresa) Wagner disparages for seeking to impose their moral views on the poor, actually served them quite well by insisting on virtues, such as thrift and sobriety, that were essential for escaping poverty. When Carnegie, Rockefeller, and later philanthropists endowed great educational and cultural institutions, they were undoubtedly striving to embellish their own reputations, as Wagner contends, but they were also making intellectual and spiritual riches available to those who could not otherwise have obtained them.
Today’s corporations do try to promote their businesses through gifts, sponsorships, and “cause-related marketing.” Yet, the charities they back generally come out ahead too. And though today’s fee-charging, sales-driven nonprofits (such as hospitals or museums) may look and act like—or even “convert” into—for-profit firms, there’s no reliable evidence they are less responsive to the needy, or less effective in carrying out their missions, than organizations struggling along on the kindness of their donors.
Wagner is right to point out the dangers of confusing the personal with the philanthropic. But he is oblivious to the benefits. A donor’s own idea about what is good for society, no matter how self-interested, may turn out to be a uniquely valuable one. A benefactor’s pursuit of respectability or financial gain may nonetheless produce great rewards for others.
In these ways, and more often than many of its defenders care to admit, philanthropy has a lot in common with a market economy. Sometimes, its real contributions come about from harnessing private gain to public good, rather than appealing to altruistic motives.
Unfortunately, Wagner only sees the self-serving side. And when he turns to his own alternative, he becomes starry-eyed, writing that “nations which provide generous social welfare systems know little of homelessness, hunger, poverty, or high rates of violent crime,” without reporting exactly what utopias he has in mind. He also contends that “organizing more of the workforce into strong unions to push up wages and fringe benefits, and forcing higher rates of corporate taxation to provide income, housing and health care for all Americans, would do more good than a thousand charitable campaigns.” Why these activities are less likely than charitable ones to be driven by self-serving motives he does not say.
Like many champions of the welfare state, Wagner confuses the political with the philanthropic. If the public were truly empowered, he seems to believe, government would be able to address society’s problems, rather than have us wait for the wealthy and private organizations to do so (and badly to boot). Judging from how much they invest in political advocacy, more than a few people within the philanthropic world apparently think this as well.
Hard experience has shown just how naive such a view is. For if “love of mankind” is not always at the heart of philanthropy, neither is it the core of political life. People in government are motivated as much by the desires for respect, financial gain, re-election, or to control others as those elsewhere in society. And what government possesses in resources and authority is often offset by a lack of consensus, creativity, and consistency. If charity is an imperfect means of improving society, substituting political activity offers no guarantee of a change for the better—and the potential for much worse, as more than a few tottering or abandoned welfare states can attest.
The history of the United States and other countries suggests that a mixture of philanthropy and government—plus a sound economy—provides the best formula for social progress. How much of each is always a matter of debate, but by exaggerating the vices of one and the virtues of the other, Wagner does nothing to clarify it.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of philanthropic studies and public policy at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indiana.