Does philanthropy undermine democracy?

This post can now be read on our new Giving Thought blog.

3 responses to “Does philanthropy undermine democracy?

  1. I loved this post as it really made me think. So … those thoughts for what they are worth.

    When does philanthropy try and change the very system that made the philanthropist rich – put another way ‘how progressive is progressive’ (the donor’s always give within a pro-capitalism tradition)? Shades of Peter Buffett’s “charitable industrial complex” here.

    What about philanthropy as an alternative source of ideas (i.e. a different group of people thinking about problems rather than just a monolithic government). This cuts across progressive/conservative or donor politics.

    If a cause really is widely supported why are government and voters not advocating tax support?

    There is a distinction to be drawn here – there can be wide support from the public for something funded by 1 philanthropist and there can be a wide base of philanthropists giving to something.
    This gets to what definition of philanthropy you are using – is it the philanthropy of the 0.01%? the philanthropy of ‘on paper’ millionaires? money of dead philanthropists administered by foundations? the ‘citizen philanthropy’ of civic crowdfunding etc.? Lots of people giving to their own causes seems very healthy – a form of governance over and beyond government.

    No – it can indeed boost the “least worst” system of democracy.

    But isn’t philanthropy also about improving/reducing private greed – whether because conscience, faith or threat of taxes dictates that this be so? We are just so grateful that those hugely wealthy people give something back.

    n.b. In Detroit the foundations have been seen (critically by some) as a de facto government by some – precipitated by the political/fiscal vacuum.

    I would have added a further category to your four. What about the sheer scale of philanthropy – is it the icing on the cake or is it a good deal of the cake?

    • Gareth- thanks very much for your thoughtful response. You’ve definitely picked up on a number of points that I had to skirt round in the interest of keeping the post to manageable length!

      Re the progressive/conservative question: I agree that truly progressive philanthropy is arguably almost impossible because it is itself an artifact of a system that allows huge wealth inequality to exist (something I have written about before ( It might be possible for wealthy people to use philanthropy as a tool to address inequality, and in the course of doing so, “put themselves out of business”, but I suspect that true examples of this are very few and far between.

      Philanthropy as an alternate source of ideas is a good way of looking at it, but people will almost certainly still try to categorise those ideas with reference to existing frameworks. I would imagine that their assessment of where a particular example of philanthropy fits within that framework will determine how legitimate they think it is. Perhaps we should all be positive about the idea of “letting a thousand flowers bloom” in terms of ideas funded by philanthropy, but in reality I don’t know that people are quite so phlegmatic.

      Re the question of support: You’re totally right about the difference between something widely supported by the populace and something widely supported only by the 1%. I think the ideal scenario is one where the former is true- e.g. in which philanthropy provides the impetus to move forward a cause that has a groundswell of support across the wealth spectrum, but where there is political reluctance to act. However, there is always the danger that if those with the money have different priorities, it is only these that get expressed.

      I think it might be more complicated than this though, as one can also imagine situations in which a lone philanthropists takes on a cause that has little support at the time, but which develops popular support as a result of their efforts and comes, with hindsight, to be seen as important . Perhaps in that case the fact that philanthropy can be “anti-democratic”, and run counter to political and public opinion is actually a positive thing?

      Re your additional point about the scale of philanthropy: this is something I consider quite a bit in my book. I firmly believe that the current scale of philanthropy is one of the main reasons to reject the idea that it can be seen as an appropriate replacement for public funding. There simply isn’t anywhere near enough philanthropic money. That suggests that a positive narrative about philanthropy should be about its role in driving innovation and acting as a challenge to the status quo by demonstrating better ways of doing things and campaigning for social change.

      Thanks again for your comments- great to get some debate going on these questions, which too often seem to get ignored!


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