19 April 2019

Donations to restore Notre Dame spark backlash

Following the disastrous fire that damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, several wealthy French citizens and companies have taken the lead in pledging funds to support the reconstruction and repair of the cultural, religious, and national landmark. And just as here in the United States it seems that no good deed goes unpunished or uncriticized, there are some who aren’t all that pleased. Here, for example, is how USA Today reports on some of the criticisms:

Multiple French billionaires joined an international effort this week to raise funds to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire partially destroyed the beloved historic building.

But the speed and scale of those donations has sparked a debate about income inequality and the worthiness of the cause.

The criticism comes after Francois Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault — both billionaires — each pledged more than $100 million to the restoration efforts. The rivals have a history of one-upmanship.

Other big French donors: Cosmetics company L’Oréal, along with The Bettencourt Meyers family and the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation.

Soon, international press coverage — including articles published by The Washington Post, Forbes and CNN — spotlighted negative reactions, often accompanied by a general sympathy for the rebuilding cause.

A common position among critics: The mega-donations prove social problems could be quickly addressed if the wealthy were motivated to do so…

“With a click of their fingers, TWO French billionaires have given €300million to restore Notre Dame. Just imagine if billionaires cared as much about uhhhh human people,” tweeted Carl Kinsella.
A CNN article focused on the possibility that the givers might deduct their donations from their taxes (in France, taxpayers are allowed to deduct 66% of a charitable gift from taxes owed, rather than the deduction from taxable income that occurs in the U.S.):

Attention shifted quickly this week from the generosity of the pledges to whether the donors would claim generous tax benefits available in France.

Under French law, individuals can deduct 66% of a charitable gift on their taxes, while businesses can claim back 60%.

For every corporate gift of €100 million ($112 million), that’s €60 million ($68 million) the state doesn’t receive in tax, explained Anne-Claire Pache, a professor who specializes in philanthropy at France’s ESSEC Business School.

Critics argue the donations meant to repair Notre Dame would be better spent on social programs to help the poor in a country where rising inequality has contributed to the outbreak of recent street protests.

An article on Forbes.com that recounts many of these criticisms also describes the potential damage they could do to maintaining a healthy and robust civil society:

Such criticism risks forcing the wealthy not to donate at all. This is already happening in the U.K: resentment of the Sackler family’s involvement in the opioid crisis has forced the family foundation to suspend all donations. There is growing concern that the Sacklers are just the beginning: Charities are already beefing up due diligence of their donors.

In the case of Notre Dame, the argument is binary. Appeals for donors to give to poverty, not Notre Dame ignore the fact many billionaires already donate to multiple projects.

But there is a wider worry that public pressure on philanthropists will curtail their spending. Scorn over their business interests, tax arrangements, or philanthropic motivations will not help grow charitable spending. It will only diminish it, as they shy from the limelight.

The complaints mirror in many ways what is being said in the U.S. by a variety of philanthropic critics – basically, the wealthy are funding the wrong things, and isn’t it troubling that they have all this money to give away to begin with? The latter isn’t really a criticism of philanthropy, but the former certainly is.

But while there are certainly critiques to be made of where philanthropists large and small decide to put their resources, it’s probably worth noting that man is not simply a belly that needs filling in a body that needs shelter, warmth, clothing and care. Art, culture and religion that expand the mind, inspire greatness, and nourish the soul, among other things, are also vital human needs. There is no need to denigrate givers to one cause in order to elevate another, as sadly seems to be happening here.