Does philanthropy undermine democracy?

The last few weeks have seen a couple of very thoughtful articles about a topic that has long been a fascination of mine: namely the often awkward relationship between philanthropy and democracy. First there was a soul-searching article in the journal Democracy by the former Director of Atlantic Philanthropies, Gara LaMarche (later reproduced as an article in the democracyAtlantic), asking whether philanthropy was inherently bad for democracy. And then there was a fascinating article in Inside Philanthropy detailing the influence that philanthropy had on the 2014 US midterm elections.


I was particularly interested to see this issue come to the fore because I have just finished writing a book about the role of philanthropy in UK society (due out next year). One of the questions I address in this is the changing nature of the relationship between philanthropy and democracy in this country, so it is something that has been at the front of my mind recently.


For me, there are two big questions: firstly, does philanthropy actually pose a challenge to democracy? And secondly, is this necessarily a bad thing? The answer to the first is fairly clearly “yes”. One of the distinguishing features of philanthropy is that it is done with a purpose in mind: something that it seeks to change or challenge. This means that it is inherently political (with a small “p”). And since philanthropy stands apart from the structures of representative democracy, it provides a means to bypass them or even to actively challenge them.


But is this a problem? Many throughout history have thought that it is. George Washington, for instance, warned in his farewell address as US President that voluntary association would over time “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be able to subvert the Power of the People, and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust domination”. And far more recently, the German billionaire Peter Kramer, refused to sign the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge on the grounds that he was concerned that “these guys have so much power through their wealth that they, instead of the government elected by the people, can decide what’s good and what should be promoted and subsidized… That can be dangerous.”


These are valid concerns, but I don’t think that we have to draw an entirely negative conclusion about the role of philanthropy. Rather we have to be clear about the ways in which it can be a positive force for challenging democracy, and when this challenge becomes problematic. To this end, there are a number of questions we need to answer.


Is the cause progressive or conservative?

One question we should ask is what the philanthropy in question is actually aiming to do. Is it progressive, i.e. aiming to improve society or move it forward in some way, or is it conservative i.e. seeking to entrench things as they are? Most proponents of philanthropy would probably agree that it should always seek to be progressive, even if they are concerned (as Gara LaMarche seems to be) that it too often fails to live up to this ideal.


Is the cause widely supported or merely self-interested?

Related to the previous question is whether the cause has a broad base of support beyond the philanthropist themselves. This will determine whether the philanthropy has its own form of grassroots democratic legitimacy, or is simply seen as self-interested or reflective only of the interests of the wealthy.


Much of the concern about the influence of philanthropy stems from the fact that it appears to be more of the latter type than of the former. When wealthy philanthropists use their money to support causes that have popular support but have not yet made it onto mainstream political agendas, or which struggle to overcome the status quo, it is usually seen as a positive thing (at least with the benefit of hindsight).


When, however, wealthy donors support causes that are clearly motivated by their desire to benefit themselves in some way and don’t reflect the priorities of the majority of citizens, it is a cause of scepticism about the idea of philanthropy as a whole. Given that research in the US shows that the policy priorities of the top 1% differ markedly from those of the majority of the population, there may well be reason to be concerned.


The flipside of this is that when philanthropy does make efforts to engage broader communities it can actually strengthen democracy. Most political parties would kill for the sort of support that many charities and NGOs have, so they would be unwise to dismiss the fact that people have chosen to express their support for particular issues or campaigns in this way. Furthermore, engagement with a particular issue through getting involved with a charitable organisation is often a stepping stone to broader engagement with politics and the democratic process, particularly for younger people. The suggestion of the Nathan Committee way back in the 1950s that charitable activity had often provided a “nursery school for democracy” still resonates today.


Do you agree with the donor’s politics?

A lot of the criticism of philanthropy comes because people disagree with the politics of the particular donor in question. This is why we see right-wing critics in the US attacking the philanthropy of George Soros, and liberal critics attacking the philanthropy of the Koch brothers. But this clouds the broader issue of whether the influence of philanthropy itself on politics is unhealthy. We need to step back from our own personal biases and beliefs and look at the question objectively.


Maybe we should actually be sanguine about this whole issue? If we are confident that efforts to use philanthropy to influence policy and the political process are divided roughly equally between liberal and conservative donors then perhaps they cancel each other out and everything is hunky-dory? The evidence from the US midterms highlighted in the article mentioned earlier suggests something like this is the case. There appears to be an ideological proxy war being waged through philanthropy, between liberals and conservatives who see it as a way of operating outside of the main political arena. As long as there are donors throwing broadly the same amounts of money at either side of an issue, is that OK?


Pragmatically, perhaps it is. But the idea that the effect of philanthropy on politics can be discounted simply because there is a dynamic equilibrium in which both sides are trying to undermine democracy to equal degrees is quite hard to stomach. Adopting such a view is not in the best interests of philanthropy either, as it clearly reinforces the perception that it philanthropy all about secretive, unaccountable donors using money to advance their own interests. For those of us who believe that philanthropy can actually be a valuable and positive force for progress in society, this should not be acceptable.


Do you think democracy is perfect?

If you do, then all of this is pretty much irrelevant, because the very fact that philanthropy can subvert or challenge it will seem like a problem to you. However, if you agree to any extent with Winston Churchill that, democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried…, then you are probably willing to concede that it is valid to challenge democracy or offer alternative means of influencing social progress. I would imagine most people hold some version of this view; believing that democracy is the right ideal, but that in reality it is always imperfectly implemented.


The history of philanthropy tends to support this view. There are notable examples of philanthropically-supported movements that have challenged the existing form of democracy, and resulted in changes that we now take for granted. For instance, the campaign to get the vote for the working class or the campaign for universal suffrage for women. There were undoubtedly people at the time who questioned whether it was appropriate for philanthropy to be used in this way, but we can see with the benefit of hindsight that were on the wrong side of history.


In many countries around the world, the importance of philanthropy and charitable giving as a means to support civil society organisations to challenge and improve democracy is absolutely vital even today. My colleague Adam Pickering has written in detail about this on his Future World Giving blog, which I highly recommend reading.



The question of the thorny relationship between philanthropy and democracy has become pressing in the US, as the lines between philanthropy, policy and politics are blurring more than ever before. As we attempt to develop a stronger culture of philanthropy in the UK, we would do well to heed the lessons from the US experience, as well as from our own history, in order to make sure we avoid the obvious pitfalls. Answering the above questions, or at least bearing them in mind, can help us to understand the ways in which philanthropy can successfully augment democracy without undermining it.



Rhodri Davies

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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