Philanthropy is Marketing

This post is the product of a conversation with some friends on Slack, on the topic of billionaires and their philanthropy.  What kicked off this thread of our ongoing conversation was this New York Post piece on Elon Musk.  The column (which is worth reading in full) strings together some of Musk’s frankly stupid tweets regarding CoVID-19 before correctly (and brutally) pointing out a few ways his attempts to “save the day” have fallen far short of what he promised.  Here’s the pull-quote from the piece added to our conversation:

Elon, it’s time to take a breath and think — and possibly research work that may not have been done by you — before you speak. Take a page from the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, and put your money where your big mouth is (without constantly crowing about it). Dorsey, who has teamed up with Rihanna and Jay-Z to donate $6.2 million to CoVID-19 relief funds, recently announced the creation of Start Small LLC, using $1 billion of his own equity to “disarm this pandemic.” After that, the fund will “shift to … health and education” for girls.

According to Wikipedia, Jack Dorsey’s net worth is slightly south of $4 billion, making his $1 billion offering against the pandemic at least a quarter of his net worth.  The number of other billionaires donating that proportion of their current net worth to such a cause is zero.  While that level of generosity is commendable, American society has become far too dependent on the noblesse oblige of billionaires.

Here’s the comment from our conversation that prompted the title of this post:

But whining they [billionaires] aren’t donating then whine when they do donate and most people haven’t donated is also a double standard.

Right, the tax code needs to be fixed but the [R]epublicans have basically twisted the logic of “if you remove these billionaire tax writeoffs and loopholes it’s gonna affect average joe making 40k a year” into the mind of their base.

It’s some of the best marketing I’ve ever seen.

Scott Galloway has said something along these lines on at least one occasion: “philanthropy is marketing.”  For the various and sundry “tech bros” (and others) who do it, it represents a tiny fraction of their net worth for immense reputational gains.  Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to reform public schools in Newark, or the Sackler family’s support of the arts.  Whether or not the money had the desired effect is incidental to how the public regards the people who gave the money–it “launders” their reputations (a necessary washing in light of what we now know about how they earned their billions).  Even the amount Charles Kushner spent to buy Harvard a building with his name (and incidentally get his son a spot at the school he didn’t earn with his grades) somehow counts as philanthropy.

Unfortunately, philanthropy doesn’t just rehab reputations.  More and more often it seems to be offered as a substitute for government involvement.  Philanthropy has been offered as a substitute for a social safety net funded with taxes before.  But it hasn’t been (nor will it ever be) adequate to the scale of certain problems American society faces, whether we look at schools, poverty, pollution, public health, or any number of other challenges.  The degree to which we have built an expectation of, if not a dependence on, the largesse of the very wealthy for key things is not merely sad but dangerous.  Not only can their interests and focus change in a flash, but we have no mechanism for holding them accountable for failure.  A properly-functioning society cannot and must not let this status quo regarding philanthropy continue.  

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