Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

If you’ve been waiting for the right time to support our work—that time is now.

Our mission is simple: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

But without the support of our readers, this model does not work and we simply won’t survive. It’s that simple.
We must meet our Mid-Year Campaign goal but we need you now.

Please, support independent journalism today.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Though it's undeniable Big Philanthropists have done some good work, large-scale philanthropy is largely about letting billionaires feel better about themselves, a form of "conscience laundering”" that simultaneously functions to "keep the existing system of inequality in place." (Photos: Getty)

Philanthropy: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Gary Olson

Whenever I hear a powerful philanthropist piously proclaim, “I just wanted to give something back,” my first reaction is “Why not give it all back?” I say that because “giving back” is all about first taking away. Immense fortunes are derived from random luck, class background, tax avoidance schemes, off-shoring jobs, publically-funded research, inheritance, a low-federal minimum wage, and especially, from the labor of countless men and women who produced it. In Chris Rock’s pithy words, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stressed, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.” And that’s the rub. The one thing that Big Philanthropy must overlook is the green elephant astride the boardroom’s conference table, the economic system that causes and extends these injustices in perpetuity.

We know that the munificence of the rich is rarely directed toward those most in need but to donor alma maters and limited access cultural institutions. This enhances the giver’s status among his or her peers while providing generous tax advantages. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, in New York State not one of the top 49 gifts of at least $1million went toward improving the lives of needy people. More typical was a gift of $190 million for Columbia University’s business school and another of $40 million for an indoor cycling track. Often the donor’s name is attached to the edifice. 

Private philanthropic mega-foundations are tax exempt which means 40 percent of their wealth has been siphoned off. The top seventy foundations have assets in excess of seven hundred billion dollars and in one recent year the tax subsidies amounted to a loss of $53.7 billion dollars to the U.S. treasury (Bob Reich, Boston Review, 2013). For example, as recounted in Mark Dowie’s book American Foundations, billionaire financier George Soros was conducting an executive session of his foundation when a spirited exchange occurred about grant-making priorities. Soros allegedly declared “This is my money. We will do it my way.” At that, a junior staffer pointed out that half the money didn’t belong to Soros because if not placed in the foundation “it would be in the Treasury.” The staffer’s employment was short-lived (Reich)

Just to be clear, some Big Philanthropists have done some good work. However, as Peter Buffet (Warren Buffet's son) has argued, philanthropy is largely about letting billionaires feel better about themselves, a form of “conscience laundering” that simultaneously functions to “keep the existing system of inequality in place...” by shaping the culture.

Gara Lamarche, a veteran grants administrator for large foundations, comes closer to candor than most by advocating forms of giving that go beyond laudatory volunteering at soup kitchens or reading books to underserved children. Echoing Dr. King, he says we need to “expose the root causes and structural conditions that result in hunger or lack of access to education in the first place.” Tellingly, Lamarche goes no further. Why not? Because philanthro-capitalists believe and want us to believe they’re indispensable, that only their fundamentalist, free market system can save us. Above all, we should never look to a democratically accountable government to insure every citizen has a social right to quality health care, first-public schools, free universities, employment security, dignified retirement, and an environmentally safe planet. This anti-government narrative is prompted by fear that a robust government pursuing these ends could also curb their control of the nation’s resources.

Finally, it’s terminally naive to expect the new Gilded Age plutocrats, 16,000 individuals or .01 percent with as much wealth as eighty percent of Americans will commit class suicide. Their wealth won’t midwife a world into existence in which they and their progeny no longer rule. The rest of us shouldn’t hesitate in undertaking this long overdue transformation. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is "Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain" (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

"I'm sure this will be all over the corporate media, right?"
That’s what one longtime Common Dreams reader said yesterday after the newsroom reported on new research showing how corporate price gouging surged to a nearly 70-year high in 2021. While major broadcasters, newspapers, and other outlets continue to carry water for their corporate advertisers when they report on issues like inflation, economic inequality, and the climate emergency, our independence empowers us to provide you stories and perspectives that powerful interests don’t want you to have. But this independence is only possible because of support from readers like you. You make the difference. If our support dries up, so will we. Our crucial Mid-Year Campaign is now underway and we are in emergency mode to make sure we raise the necessary funds so that every day we can bring you the stories that corporate, for-profit outlets ignore and neglect. Please, if you can, support Common Dreams today.

 

'A Hate Crime': Oslo Pride Parade Canceled After Deadly Shooting at Gay Bar

A 42-year-old gunman has been charged with terrorism following what Norway's prime minister called a "terrible and deeply shocking attack on innocent people."

Kenny Stancil ·


'We WILL Fight Back': Outrage, Resolve as Protests Erupt Against SCOTUS Abortion Ruling

Demonstrators took to the streets Friday to defiantly denounce the Supreme Court's right-wing supermajority after it rescinded a constitutional right for the first time in U.S. history.

Brett Wilkins ·


80+ US Prosecutors Vow Not to Be Part of Criminalizing Abortion Care

"Criminalizing and prosecuting individuals who seek or provide abortion care makes a mockery of justice," says a joint statement signed by 84 elected attorneys. "Prosecutors should not be part of that."

Kenny Stancil ·


Progressives Rebuke Dem Leadership as Clyburn Dismisses Death of Roe as 'Anticlimactic'

"The gap between the Democratic leadership, and younger progressives on the question of 'How Bad Is It?' is just enormous."

Julia Conley ·


In 10 Key US Senate Races, Here's How Top Candidates Responded to Roe Ruling

While Republicans unanimously welcomed the Supreme Court's rollback of half a century of reproductive rights, one Democrat said "it's just wrong that my granddaughter will have fewer freedoms than my grandmother did."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo