By far the most interesting philanthropy story of the last couple of months, to my mind, was the news last week that Google founder Larry Page announced in a Tedx talk that he was planning on leaving his fortune not to a traditional not-for-profit but to tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s for-profit venture to establish a colony on Mars (among other things). This raised two intriguing questions that I want to delve into here:
- Is Page’s choice of cause justifiable?
- Is his contention that giving his money to a for-profit rather than a not-for-profit organisations will be more effective a fair one?
Taking the first of these first, the issue with Page’s choice of cause (as argued in a good article on Inside Philanthropy) is that to a lot of people it might seem, well, a bit frivolous. Establishing a Mars colony 20 or 30 years in the future is not an unreasonable goal (as a self-certified sci-fi addict, I certainly wouldn’t argue against it) but given that there are millions of people living in poverty and some pretty serious environmental issues in the world right now, is it the best use of limited philanthropic resources?
This is a tricky one: assuming that one of the defining features of philanthropy is that it is voluntary and the donor has choice, Larry Page is perfectly entitled to give his money to Elon Musk or anyone else he chooses to. However, if one believes that philanthropy is in fact part of a wider social contract, and that having amassed great wealth, one has a responsibility to use it wisely for the benefit of society, then it is more legitimate to question how someone gives. In this context, one might criticise Page for prioritising his personal whims over the needs of society, as it is clear that Mars exploration is not top of the priority list of the vast majority of his fellow citizens.
On the other hand, however, one could argue that the human race could do with setting itself some ambitious goals and that from a longer-term perspective the development of space exploration capability would be of far greater significance than attempting to deal with the issues that are particular to this point in time.
Perhaps the more compelling argument is the pragmatic one, though. Even the amount of money available to a billionaire like Larry Page wouldn’t begin to make a dent in achieving a goal as ambitious as colonisation of Mars, whereas it could make a real difference to some of the many slightly smaller-scale problems we already know about. In terms of making an impact, the latter course of action thus seems more sensible.
Let’s put aside at this point the argument about what Larry Page should or shouldn’t give to, and assume that we’re all in favour of Martian colonisation. What is perhaps even more interesting about Page’s remarks in his TEDx talk is how he proposes to achieve his goal. His claim that he can achieve more social impact by giving the money to a for-profit venture (Elon Musk’s SpaceX) raises a host of challenges for the not-for-profit sector.
My first question: is Larry Page making the specific claim that he believes in his particular case, it would be better to give the money to a commercial venture than to a charitable one, or is he making the general claim that everyone (or at least those with lots of money) should give in this way? The former, whilst still contentious, is less combative. If Page believes that his interests are best suited by giving to a commercial organisation, then so be it. It might well be true in his case. Perhaps Elon Musk really is a genius whose vision has potential surpassing anything the not-for-profit could offer in terms of impact? Or perhaps Larry Page simply feels better equipped to judge the value of Elon Musk’s work than he is to judge the work of not-for-profits that operate outside his sphere of expertise? Which is a perfectly valid position.
The second interpretation of Larry Page’s comments is by far the more controversial one, amounting to an all-out attack on the efficacy of the philanthropic sector and the idea of traditional charitable giving. Under this interpretation, the Google co-founder is advising anyone who wants to achieve something by giving their money away to give it to a commercial organisation that is attempting radical large-scale innovation rather than to a charitable organisation.
It is understandable that Page believes in the world-changing power of companies, given his experience at Google, and fair enough that he wants to defend them as agents of social good. However, I think that in trying to make this point he does a disservice to the work of not-for-profit organisations by talking down their ability to make an impact. I also think that his view of corporations is overly-idealistic: commercial organisations certainly can have lofty ambitions to change the world, but at least for listed companies it remains the case that they are first and foremost answerable to shareholders who expect to see profits and investment returns. Whether this is truly compatible with the sort of long-term approach needed to make progress on truly big issues, I don’t know.
What Larry Page’s comments do highlight is that the decision over what to do with money is no longer a binary one between investing it for commercial gain or giving it away for philanthropic gain. It is now open to all of us to use our money in ways that deliver both financial and social benefits, whether that is by ensuring our commercial investments are ethical, by making direct social investments or by leaving our money to a space-travel entrepreneur. However, even though these new opportunities exist, there is still a continuing and vital role for old-fashioned, altruistic charitable giving, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
It is obviously up to Larry Page to choose what he does with his money, and he is almost certainly a better judge of the potential impact of tech investments than I am. So maybe he is right that giving it all to Elon Musk is the best option for him. Where I would take issue with him is over any suggestion that his way is somehow better than that of someone who does carefully-considered traditional philanthropy.
The thought of a world in which all the money currently going to support the efforts of the many brilliant not-for-profits organisations around the world fighting against poverty, disease and injustice went instead to corporations with one eye on the bottom line is an unappealing one indeed.