Will philanthropy by the rich save us?

Mackenzie Scott’s giving away of $4 bn made news last week, as this was one of the most generous examples of giving by an ultra-rich person, this year. It is admirable that she has given this money away, even though there are very many criticisms of this phenomenon of hi-networth giving.

Hi-networth giving by Mackenzie Scott
credits: npr.org

Her problem is pretty unique to super-rich folk: how to help others, with all the surplus wealth that one has? There have been a few proposals before us, falling broadly into two categories :

  1. Tax the rich and
  2. Allow the rich to carry out their philanthropy, as they see fit and encourage them in this direction.

The first idea of taxing the rich doesn’t seem to gain a lot of momentum in the U.S., given that political will to make this happen doesn’t seem to exist. However, a vast majority of Americans think that what they pay are fair share of taxes. Given that we have a progressive system of taxation, at the individual level, there seems to be not much of a problem for the middle class. The poor and those who are struggling to make ends meet are the ones who are most upset about the status quo.

But for the super-wealthy and entrepreneurs and those with avenues to gain tax deductions, there are enormous loopholes through which companies do not pay any taxes, even after making billions of dollars in taxes. This article talks about how little a company like Amazon pays, in taxes (for the past few years, it has paid $0 in taxes). The company has faced a lot of criticism for this reason. Various tax credits and deductions help firms such as Amazon avoid taxes.

Can billions of dollars donated by the super-rich save us? This question is as old as the industrial age (also called the Gilded age), when the newly founded millionaires (billionaires in comparison to our age) such as Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others tried to answer this question. We have our own Rockefellers and Carnegies in the form of  Mackenzie Scott, Bill Gates, and others, who have given away quite a lot of money to worthy causes.

At a time when the American economy has been battered by the pandemic, politicians, intellectuals are questioning why the current system persists, especially when we are fighting over something as basic as a $600 relief check for Americans.

The second approach of the wealthy giving away their wealth is a somewhat recent phenomenon, that has emerged in the past decade or two.

The Giving Pledge is an example of a modern version of how the super-rich have tried to rationalize their wealth and reach an agreement with themselves and others: the compact that giving one’s wealth away is one way to deal with the problem our societies have created: excessive wealth in a few hands.

Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth is one of the older documents in this regard that tried to address this specific problem.

What is the right answer to the problem of wealth transfer from the super-rich to the super-poor? That answer depends on the society that we have and how people feel about the obligations and rights that we have, as individuals towards each other, and the government’s role in regulating these obligations and rights. This ‘social contract’ may need revision, as we come out of the covid-19 pandemic, with deep questions being asked about the nature of our relationship to each other, to the state, and to our communities – far and wide.

This act may need a renewed imagination and a willingness to debate and dialogue with people with who we vehemently disagree.

How can charity and philanthropy help during COVID-19 crisis

I accidentally came across a short video on twitter by Chef Jose Andres. Chef Andres shared a recipe of a simple lentil soup and also a message: feed others with what you have. Feed your own family, feed the people around you. This simple message resonated with me, both as an educator and as someone who cooks. I am not a great cook, but can feed myself and others around me with the ingredients around me. Spending a lot of time in the kitchen in my formative years has taught me a few skills.

Source: aha.org

Food as philanthropy is a powerful idea. One individual that is doing well is Chef Andres, one of the 100 most influential people in the world as identified by TIME and also a philanthropist. He is a spokesperson for issues related to migration, philanthropy in the U.S. And his work can give us some ideas on what everyone of us can support and get behind, especially when institutions around us either don’t exist, to deal with issues that ordinary human beings are facing, or if they exist, they are not living upto their promise. This situation calls for a powerful force in American (and global) civil society: that of philanthropy and voluntary action.

While it is true that charity in itself cannot replace the function of governments with their billion (or trillion dollar) deep purses, at the very least, charity can act as a temporary support mechanism, a band-aid that can stop the bleeding. A crutch that can help people get by, till they get actual support and help, that they need, to get back on their feet. Philanthropy has a key role to play in promoting human welfare. It not only involves donations of money but also donations of effort, through volunteering.

Chef Andre’s work with World Kitchen Central is based on a simple premise : “Feed anybody that is hungry and bring water to anyone that is thirsty.”  Another aspect of charity and philanthropy that is relevant is made clear by his statement “the urgency of now is now, not a week from now.” This profound statement, though somewhat simplistic at face value is key to understanding how charity and philanthropy during COVID-19 crisis can be useful : often it is driven by immediate needs. Immediate need to feed someone, to provide shelter, to donate Personal protective equipment etc.

By focusing on what drives a person, he/she can act immediately, whether by writing a check, donating masks or mobilizing people to volunteer. This need for ‘expressive giving,’ as scholar Peter Frumkin calls it, is central to the idea of philanthropy. And we are seeing this manifest now, during a pandemic. Some, for instance have raised questions about Huawei’s donations of masks to Europe and other parts of the world and questioned its intention.

While donor intent and passion are central to giving and voluntary action, they are not without problems. There can be corruption, hobnobbing with powerful elite and a million other ways that certain rich philanthropists can use their money and resources to gain advantage, by leveraging their philanthropy, during this time.

Regardless of how one feels about charity, there is no doubt that the humanitarian urge to contribute to a solution will exist. And that is a positive force that both communities and governments should leverage, to provide short-term and long-term solutions to people. At a time when governments are failing to provide what is needed, both in terms of resources and direction, to dealing with one of the biggest crises of this generation, it may well be that individual action and values may help bring us together, to address some challenging issues.

As Andres asks: “Coronavirus is facing us to ask ourselves, who are our leaders? Are they the ones who give speeches or the ones with boots on the ground to do things.” His charity is helping patients dealing with COVID-19 by feeding them.

Food may well be a starting point, but it doesn’t have to stop there!

If you wish to donate to World Central Kitchen, check out – https://donate.wck.org/give/236738/#!/donation/checkout