12 May 2017

Excellent Book Review of ‘The Givers’

by Sean Parnell, Vice President of Public Policy, The Philanthropy Roundtable

People who follow the issue of philanthropic freedom are likely to be familiar with David Callahan, who runs the web site Inside Philanthropy and is a critic of much of what we try to protect here at the Alliance for Charitable Reform, such as preserving donors’ right to remain anonymous and to ensure the government does not try to steer charitable giving one way or the other. A few weeks ago, I offered a critique of his attack on philanthropic freedom.

Callahan recently released a book, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. I haven’t finished reading it myself, but much of his critique has as much to do with perceived income and political inequality as with the philanthropic sector as a whole, or at least so it seems so far.

Someone who has finished it, and written an excellent book review in The Wall Street Journal, is Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital and co-founder with his wife of the Crankstart Foundation. A sample of his review:

Mr. Callahan, in “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” seems to pine for the romance of a past that never existed, a time when government-financed institutions such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Arts dispensed and distributed funds in a manner that anticipated the needs and concerns of citizens.

The vision of America in the 1950s and ’60s, he writes, was of publicly funded progress in the arts and sciences, a world in which “we wouldn’t depend on the munificence and preferences of millionaires to chart scientific and artistic progress, or to fund our universities. We’d do it together as citizens.” Forget the fact that the foundations of other gilded eras—Ford, Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller—had long been backing causes identified by the diktats of their creators or, in some cases, had been diverted by boards toward purposes for which they were never intended.

It is today’s equivalents of yesterday’s benefactors—billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg and Eli Broad —who are in Mr. Callahan’s crosshairs. The foundations established by these figures and others are, in Mr. Callahan’s mind, another pernicious byproduct of income inequality. “The distorting effects of inequality on civil society remain only dimly understood,” he writes, “even as the ranks of nonprofits sustained almost exclusively by rich donors keeps growing and speaking ever more loudly.” Who, he argues, gave these people the right to interfere with education, the environment, criminal-justice reform or LGBT rights?

It’s an excellent review, and well worth the time to go to read (The Philanthropy Roundtable will also be reviewing Callahan’s book in the upcoming edition of Philanthropy magazine).