Billionaire philanthropy is a scam

Courtesy of the World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s astonishing how even at this point, when multibillionaires have reached apocalyptic levels of wealth and power, “philanthropy” is still seen as a valid form of charity. Both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are on track to become the world’s first trillionaires in the next 25 years—an unimaginable amount of money that would take 16 million years to amass with the U.S. median income of just under 60,000 dollars without any spending. The idea of one person holding that amount of wealth is so inconceivable that it’s hard to contextualize the significance of philanthropy among the ultra-rich within their actual material resources. In actuality, the philanthropic efforts of the extremely rich just function to distract the public from the devastatingly absurd amounts of wealth they’ve accrued, not to mention the fact that this class also created most of the problems they now claim to address. The optics of goodwill and generosity are simply easier for people to accept than the ultra-rich’s inconceivable, morally reprehensible accumulation of wealth. 

The modern term of philanthropy refers to helping others through monetary donations, generally seen as a top-down system. The actual process of philanthropy isn’t as simple as just giving money away—the inner machinations of “charitable” foundations generally safeguard money and offer lower tax liabilities for the donors. Even further, these foundations reflect the private interests of their donors, exerting undue influence on the world and not necessarily addressing the issues that are most important to the people who supposedly benefit from philanthropy. Personally, I think it’s pretty ridiculous to assume that someone who has built a career off of exploitation and the unethical accruition of wealth has others’ best interests at heart. But these philanthropists continue to be praised in the media for their generosity. These acts of charity are barely that. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes the billionaire philanthropist George Soros in “The Reality of the Virtual”: “half the day he engages in the most ruthless financial exploitations, ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands, even millions. The other half [of the day] he just gives part of it back.” 

The Gates Foundation is another clear example of influence without accountability, although there’s rarely anything but praise for Bill Gates’ philanthropy. In his efforts to curb the impacts of infectious diseases and bolster worldwide immunization rates, his foundation spends more money on global health causes than the World Health Organization. Any private interest that has this amount of power should cause concern. Some experts have expressed concern over both Gates’ outsized influence and the priorities of his foundation, citing that most of its grants go to rich countries or don’t reflect the most pressing issues of the population. Even Gates’ popular fight against polio deserves a reassessment; Vox describes that “key stakeholders” in some of the countries impacted express that the issue of polio eradication was “a priority for wealthy nations and not necessarily developing ones,” which were focused on other, more locally pressing health crises. If communities aren’t being included in the process of aid, their priorities will be misconstrued. Another damning example of this arrogant approach to aid came at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gates Foundation got involved in the race for a vaccine and discouraged any open, collective research and resource pooling to instead maintain exclusive rights. This refusal to let go of intellectual property for the greater good has led to limited access for poorer countries and thus a much longer global timeline for the pandemic, a predictable catastrophe that could have been curbed if it wasn’t for capitalist ego and profit. It’s telling that even for one of the largest and most venerated philanthropic foundations in the world, personal interest comes before genuine aid.

The efficacy of philanthropy is similar to that of trickle-down economics. Instead of redistributing wealth, private philanthropy often prioritizes elite issues, thus further strengthening existing structures. Even if these efforts actually benefit society in meaningful ways, the process creates a worrying dependency on wealthy donors and ignores the structural problems that allow millionaires to exert influence like this in the first place. At its core, philanthropy is about exerting power and disguising the ultra-rich’s role in the problems they address. In the context of a billionaire’s actual wealth, philanthropy is barely substantial—only genuine wealth redistribution and toppling the systems that support them can achieve the goals they claim to strive for. 

10 Comments

  1. If the people who do accumulate wealth in our system aren’t supposed to give money away to charitable causes, what should they do with it instead?

    • David – The answer is that they should be taxed, very heavily, so that the charity isn’t going simply to the personal choices/whims of an individual, but provided at a systemic level using choices made by elected, accountable officials whose purpose is to make good public policy. Suggest reading Anand Giridhadaras’s Winners Take All.

      • What should they do with what’s left after paying taxes? I’m for higher taxes, I founded a whole group to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, but there’s still a lot left after paying taxes.

          • If you want to live in a communist country then Im sure there is a spot for you in Cuba or Venezuela. Bill Gates is 100% self made. He did not inherit his wealth. He has created hundreds of thousands of jobs and donated billions to causes including the elimination of Malaria. If he was taxed at 90% chances are none of that would have happened.

            The utopia you imagine is a fantasy.

  2. David – The answer is that they should be taxed, very heavily, so that the charity isn’t going simply to the personal choices/whims of an individual, but provided at a systemic level using choices made by elected, accountable officials whose purpose is to make good public policy. Suggest reading Anand Giridhadaras’s Winners Take All.

  3. I’ve worked in international development for 40 years. I couldn’t agree with you more. Billionaires are trying to change the world & not necessarily in a positive direction. I’m the CEO of an international NGO. 40 yrs ago, most grants came from western governments, the UN or WB & many still do. Today the Gates Fdn & others hold too much power over your org. I’ve worked with Gates, Soros & other billionaires. It is an open secret in DC that no one likes to work with them. We are forced to do it bc the govt won’t fund your program. I attended a billionaire donor conference pre-covid. They made it known that intl dev was too academic & not business enough. We weren’t solving issues. They said all charities should only be given 3 to 5 yrs to accomplish their mission & go out of business. They said if we wanted $ from them, we must allow them to assist in operating the org from the BOD down. We disagreed. They may be successful businessmen but they are not experts in social, economic & political issues. They were arrogant about how much better they would do things. I left depressed about their proposals to us & thankful I’m nearing retirement. I don’t have the energy to battle them.

  4. While I believe billionaires should be taxed more heavily, it is ridiculous to suggest (as David e did) that they shouldn’t exist. Also unfair of the writer to state that billionaires create most of the problems they attempt to address with their philanthropy.

    Being a billionaire is just a level of wealth, and as untouchable as that is for most, simply being a millionaire (as many of us are) is untouchable for many also. I give money to the charities of my choice. I help shape my corner of the world as I see fit based on my wealth and privilege that people living paycheck to paycheck can not do. Is that also wrong, or is it ok because I am simply a multi-millionaire and not a billionaire?

    Billionaires are easy targets. They seemingly have all the money in the world (truth is they don’t), and so when they give money to their own pet projects (something they have earned the right to do), some will wonder why they don’t give to other groups, or they blame them for capitalism or some other political reality. That is completely unfair.

    Bill Gates is philanthropic, and the work he and the Gates Foundation does helps the world. He is one of a growing number of billionaires who has pledged to give nearly all of his money away upon his death (not setting up his progeny to be billionaires). Completely unfair attack on him.

  5. Another perspective on Billionaires and their philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas (His book: ‘Winners Take All’) discussing the charade of elite philanthropy | VPRO Documentary on why the rich do not pay taxes, but with their philanthropy determine the course of the world (and thereby undermine our democracy). VPRO is a Dutch Public Broadcast Service. https://youtu.be/qcHlNKLQBIM

    And if you liked that, here is related and worthy discussion between Robert B. Reich and Anand Giridharadas discussing Reich’s latest book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. https://youtu.be/FQEycrkJNao?t=610

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