There’s much to decry as self-referential and self-congratulatory in the foggy vortex of Big Philanthropy. Galas, awards ceremonies, and public prizes often seem like just so many chances for the mega-rich to pat themselves on the back. But a recent feature article in the New York Times entitled “Award-Winning Philanthropists Explain the Roots of Their Giving” sheds some light on the very real utility of the whole circuit-track of award ceremonies and black-tie dinners.
The Times’ Paul Sullivan, who’s long covered the particular pathologies of the super-rich, notes that many philanthropists, especially those who come into their money on their own (rather than through inheritance or the family business), struggle to know how to spend it. Whether or not there’s the customary private jet or luxury yacht to start with, most millionaires and billionaires soon come to look to leave a legacy, to give back.
After the company went public in 1998, eBay’s first employee Jeffrey Skoll never had to work another day in his life (Wealth-X currently values Skoll at about $5.6 billion); it was at that point that what Mr. Skoll calls “the philanthropy part” started. Awash in cash, able to provide for himself and his family almost in perpetuity, Skoll looked around for somewhere to give. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but Skoll eventually “gravitated” towards the idea of investing in social entrepreneurs and retelling their stories to a public that often takes their work for granted—today the Skoll Foundation pays out about $40 million per year in grants.
But as Sullivan makes clear in his piece, “How the biggest philanthropists in America choose their causes isn’t always apparent from how they made their money.” Indeed, they often resort at first to a kind of philanthropic auto-pilot, giving instinctively to those institutions they know merely by happenstance—their own high school or college, a local parish, or a hospital that once took care of them. Such patterns of close-to-home charity embody many of the virtues that philanthrolocalists praise, but arguably for the wrong reasons. Donors shouldn’t give to a local hospital simply because they don’t know what else to do with their money; rather, for their giving to be meaningful, which is to say long-lived, they need to care about their causes.
This is where the prizes and ceremonies come in.
Sullivan specifically mentions the biannual Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, a glitzy token that recognizes the “outstanding and innovative leadership” of “exceptional” philanthropists who work in line with Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic ideals. 2017 honorees support causes as diverse as Philadelphia public schools, environmental conservation, brain research, and the study of ancient civilizations. Sullivan’s view is that such awards serve as stimulants to new donors’ latent creativity; they allow them not only to get a sense of the wide range of causes that are in need of long-term funding, but also to see that there is a community of their peers that takes this stuff seriously. It’s positive peer pressure at work, showing nouveau riche that there’s something beyond their just-satiated drive to success. Sullivan summarizes: “What begins as reactive giving—a cause catches their attention, a friend asks for a donation—evolves into proactive charity, and for a few, the type of philanthropy and strategic giving that can bring about [structural] change.”
Now, of course, none of this addresses the very real problems endemic to the world of Big Philanthropy. The clichés, banalities, and groupthink persist. But on the whole, giving money is better than not giving money, and Sullivan’s article brings up an important point: That many megadonors need some help locating the causes that will really excite them. For the time being, the gala circuit serves this purpose, at least.