08 January 2019

Philanthropy can and should be both celebrated and scrutinized

by Sean Parnell, Vice President of Public Policy

Stanford Professor Robert Reich has a new book out on philanthropy, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy And How It Can Do Better. I’m still reading through it and expect to have some comments when I’m done, but others with more time on their hands than I (or at least better time management skills) have finished the book and offered their views. One of those is David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy, who wrote his own book on a similar topic a while back.

Most of what David writes in his book review deals directly with Reich’s book but he was thoughtful enough to mention The Philanthropy Roundtable in his review, specifically this:

… charitable giving is often seen as a strictly private enterprise that’s dictated by the preferences of individual donors or staffs of the foundations they leave behind. And according to some voices in the field, like the Philanthropy Roundtable, that’s exactly the right way to view charitable giving—as a voluntary expression of liberty that we should celebrate, not scrutinize.

David gets it partially correct – we at The Philanthropy Roundtable do indeed view charitable giving as primarily a private enterprise, driven by the preferences and priorities of the donors, and I will probably steal his excellent language that it is “a voluntary expression of liberty that would should celebrate.”

I’d quibble substantially with the “not scrutinize” part, however. Philanthropy, like everything else, deserves to be scrutinized. At the Roundtable, part of our mission is to “foster excellence in philanthropy,” something that is included in large part because after careful scrutiny we find that some giving is not, in our perspective, excellent or even good. Scrutiny in philanthropy is vital, and there are a whole range of institutions including Inside Philanthropy that scrutinize and comment on charitable and civic giving (I generally find IP’s scrutiny of higher education giving to be excellent and extremely insightful, for example).

David may misunderstand The Philanthropy Roundtable’s views on the importance of scrutiny in charitable giving as a result of our exchange last year on his own book, in which I resisted the idea that “vigilant oversight” of philanthropy was necessary. The difference is more than semantic, though I can see where it might cause confusion. The “vigorous oversight” that The Philanthropy Roundtable objected to then, and continues to do so, is the idea that the government should be conducting oversight that unnecessarily interferes with the freedom of charitable givers to decide for themselves where and how to give, or how to govern charitable assets. As I pointed out at the time, we don’t talk about “vigorous oversight” of religious institutions or the free press.

So, by all means, bring scrutiny to charitable giving – The Philanthropy Roundtable certainly does, and civil society as a whole can only benefit from more people asking questions about whether some giving is really achieving its stated goals, solving problems, or enriching our communities. But we can do that while also recognizing the vital contributions that philanthropy overall has made and continues to make to our society, contributions that are a voluntary expression of liberty that we should celebrate.[1]


[1] I really hope David doesn’t copyright this.