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Philanthropy’s bad reputation could put big donors off giving – here’s why it matters

In the wake of the Notre Dame fire, critics argue the money donated to the Paris cathedral would have been better directed elsewhere. shutterstock

Within hours of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, half a billion Euros had been raised in donations by leading French business people and their families to help pay for its reconstruction.

The speed with which such enormous sums could be raised kicked off a global discussion about the rights and wrongs of that philanthropic reaction, largely focused on whether a building, however important, should be prioritised over the needs of the poor in Paris and beyond.

But the philanthropic response to the Notre Dame fire also highlighted a less discussed issue: how major donors are negatively depicted in media coverage. And the impact this might have on the willingness of private philanthropists to step forward in future.

‘Billionaire backers’

In countries with a stronger culture of philanthropy, notably the US, big giving is presented in a more positive and aspirational light. But historic and contemporary analysis of UK newspapers, recently presented at the University of Liverpool, shows a sustained pattern of making philanthropy problematic.

Research conducted in collobration with my University of Kent colleague Hugh Cunningham, finds that adjectives used to describe philanthropists in The Times in the 19th-century include “puffing”, “pseudo”, “sham”, “false” and “unscrupulous”. The 21st-century adjectival equivalents include “ruthless”, “tax-ruse”, “sinister”, “status-seeking” and “self-righteous”. The consistency over time shows that wealth and power is always an uneasy combination, even when wielded for good.

Debates are ongoing about the extent to which rich donors are complicit in the structures that generate both the available wealth that makes philanthropy possible, and the existence of social and environmental problems that make philanthropy necessary. But such debates focus only on the alleged culpability of those who give, while non-givers – choosing mega-yachts over mega-donations – are curiously absent from the discussion.

Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy, the world’s leading luxury products group, was reported to have told the latest shareholder’s meeting: “It’s pretty dismaying to see that in France you are criticised even for doing something for the general interest.” He might also have added: where’s the criticism of those who kept their heads below the philanthropic parapet?

Global giving

In the absence of a centralised database of wealthy people who could give but don’t, the Forbes list of 2,153 global billionaires comes in pretty handy. As of May 2019, there are 191 signatories to The Giving Pledge. This is a public commitment by billionaires to give away at least half of their wealth either during their lifetime or in their will. This means that just under 9% of global billionaires are serious philanthropists. So why all the focus on their motives and actions, rather than the other 91%?

The most famous names on the global billionaire list who have also signed the Giving Pledge are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Both give via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose biggest grants are focused on eradicating diseases that kill children in poor countries. A major initiative involves joining forces with the World Health Organisation to try to eradicate polio. After US$11 billion of funding – including US$3 billion from the Gates Foundation – worldwide cases of polio have been cut by 99.9%. In 1988, 1,000 children a day were paralysed by polio, but 30 years later, after 2.5 billion children have had the vaccine, polio is now virtually eliminated.

Bill and Melinda Gates have been named the most generous philanthropists in the US. PA

Whatever benefits Gates and Buffett gain from their philanthropy, such as enhanced reputations or access to elite networks, the good achieved for wider society is clear. And yet this goes remarkably unnoticed in public discussions about philanthropy.

Indeed, when Warren Buffett first joined forces with the Gates’ in 2006 – because he believed collaboration was more efficient and effective than establishing an eponymous foundation – the UK media reaction was far more muted, including one report in The Guardian which began: “When the world’s second-richest man gives most of his money to the world’s richest man we do well to count our spoons.” That evocative phrase, attributed to Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, means to make sure that nothing has been stolen by suspicious house guests.

Under suspicion

The commonplace use of words that raise suspicion about big donors highlights the reputational problem faced by philanthropists today. But there’s also a potential problem for the rest of us. As seen in the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame, when unpredictable events occur, individuals can make large amounts of funding available more quickly than either the state or the private sector.

My ongoing research is focused on understanding why philanthropy has an image problem. I have been interviewing rich donors for over a decade and many are confused and hurt by the widespread suspicions about their motives. In another UK study of rich donors, one asks: “Why are the media nasty? They don’t do good news, they are snide and they pander to jealousy.” Another notes: “I am afraid of the media, it’s always negative…They have great power and there’s no right of reply.”

Philanthropy should, of course, be scrutinised as well as celebrated, but as our study of media coverage shows, ill-chosen words can not only hurt the donors but also possibly put them off donating again – and helping those in need – in the future.

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