12 September 2017

Discussing Philanthropic Freedom and The Givers

The Philanthropy Roundtable’s vice president for public policy, Sean Parnell, recently participated in a discussion with David Callahan, the founder of Inside Philanthropy and author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. Parnell and Callahan discussed a few of the topics addressed in the book, including freedom and oversight, civic inequality, philanthropic freedom and public engagement, among others.

Ill-Defined Concept of Democracy Mars The Givers—Sean Parnell

It probably needs to be said upfront that, despite a general disagreement with several of the book’s basic premises and conclusions, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the modern world of philanthropy. The book’s interviews with and analysis of some of the leading philanthropists today (dubbed “mega-donors”) are insightful and provide readers with a good look at the different ways philanthropists approach giving.
But The Givers isn’t supposed to be a book primarily about the giving strategies of “mega-donors,” and when considering that the aim of the book is to persuade readers that wealthy philanthropists pose a danger to democracy and notions of civic equality, there are some pretty significant problems. I’ll start with the most glaring, namely that there is no working definition of what The Givers means by the term “democracy.” This would seem to be a critical flaw, because it is difficult to evaluate the book’s arguments without understanding what sort of democracy is supposedly threatened.

This is hardly a semantic or technical failing. Our nation’s Founding Fathers, to pick one prominent example, had a rather intense distrust of pure democracy, which helps to explain why they established a republic instead. It’s unlikely that the intent of The Givers was to promote the sort of raw majoritarianism that threatens basic rights of minorities, of course, but without giving much of an explanation it’s not clear what it does favor, other than scaling back philanthropic freedom (loosely defined as allowing philanthropists to direct their own giving to the organizations and causes they choose, with only minimal oversight) and imposing greater government control (perhaps “influence” is a more appropriate term) over charitable giving.

The full exchange can be read here.