Holding mega-donors accountable

Bill og Melinda Gates 2009-06-03 (bilde 01)

A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy piqued my interest with several good questions about accountability for so-called mega-donors such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and the Koch Brothers.

The article implicitly laid out three main types of accountability:

  • How did these people get so extremely wealthy in the first place, and is it right?
  • When these people gave to philanthropies, did they do so wisely and legally?
  • Once the philanthropies received the money, did they spend it effectively and efficiently?

The main agent of accountability proposed in the article, the free press, comes off as impotent-to-non-existence due to the sinking fortunes of newspapers, the precarious and philanthropic funding of non-profit journalism, and the relative weakness of citizen journalism through freelancing and blogging.

This blog’s interest in this topic springs from two fronts. One is the philosophical foundation of fairness upholding social and public programs, and thus social and public marketing. The other is the more concrete and classical marketing concern about product, program, and process effectiveness.

Some of these issues seem squarely in the realm of journalism, namely investigating and reporting on the legality of acquiring and donating money, and the subsequent stewardship of donations. This sort of accountability is right and necessary, and the press can do the job if adequately funded.

Other questions are more cultural in nature. To the first real question, is it right that some have such extreme wealth, my position has been and is a qualified yes–so long as everyone has enough, it’s okay that some have more. But we’re seeing that not everyone has enough so, no, in our present system, I don’t think it’s right and fair that some have such extreme wealth.

The other cultural question–are the mega-rich giving wisely?–is a tougher conundrum. Who decides what is wise, especially when it concerns someone else’s charitable act? The article poo-poos “such humdrum grants as $4.5-million for the National Zoo’s panda exhibit, $7.5-million to restore the Washington Monument, and more recently $12-million to renovate the historic home of Robert E. Lee” and then laments that the worthiness of grants like these is rarely questioned.

True, giving money directly to the poor would be a more direct route to addressing the too-much / not-enough imbalance. Still, philanthropic grants do liberate funds that are otherwise held in private stock piles. Those funds go in large part to pay salaries for non-profit workers and the vendors that they hired to help carry out their work.

And, zoos and monuments and historic sites enrich our culture and community.

Philanthropy can be wise for the giver, as well. Charity might have tax or financial planning benefits, for instance. In this case, society is providing incentives to spur giving. Charity might also be a vehicle to further political or personal ends. In that case, giving can be wise for the giver; whether others find it wise depends on whether they agree with the ends being achieved.

This type of giving can also be used to further entrench economic inequality, especially when charitable giving is used to bolster governmental policies the cement wealth and power in place.

As someone who has given consistent if inconsequential philanthropic gifts for several years now, I know that effective giving is not easy. It’s an indirect means to an often diffuse end, and is not without its mistakes and vanity. Questions of legality and effectiveness should be investigated. Questions of wisdom can be at best debated, or perhaps left for test of time.

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