By Pearce Hopkins
In a world where the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is growing larger and larger every day, the practice of philanthropy acts as one of the few non-government practices that aims to redistribute supplies and resources from those with a surplus of wealth to those who are most in need of support. This may be what philanthropy stands for at its core, however, headlines from the last few years paint a picture of a very different kind of charitable giving; one that is half-hearted, selective of ‘bigger names’ and, ultimately, underlined with self-interest.
2018 saw a combined total of $8.7 billion in donations from the twenty wealthiest Americans given away to charity, with household names, Gates and Buffet, leading the pack and donating $6 billion between them. A staggering figure representing the collective contributions of some of the world’s wealthiest individuals. However, what might be more staggering is the actual significance of that cash relative to those individuals’ wealth, or lack thereof. The total donations of the world’s richest were valued at around 0.8% of their collective net worth – take away Gates and Buffets’ donations, and that figure falls to only 0.3%. French economist Gabriel Zucman explored this issue further, discovering that, in 2017, on average, 0.33% of household wealth in the US went towards charity, which outweighs the value of the contributions made by the super-rich. “They give less, relative to their wealth, than the average American” Zucman tweeted in a frankly eye-opening statement.
Additionally, often the resources philanthropists’ promise take far longer than anticipated to make any kind of impact. A method of giving, donned by that of Jeffrey Bezos amongst others, is that of ‘pledging’: a declaration to give away a set amount of money with the catch of a period over which this money will be distributed, hindering more significant charitable efforts from being undertaken with haste. In emergency situations or other time-sensitive crises, circumstances can change swiftly. An initial up-front donation would likely prove far more beneficial than contributions fanned out over a prolonged period. In February 2020, Bezos made a claim that he would pledge $10 billion towards climate change and conservation through the Bezos Earth Fund by 2030. He has yet to fulfil even one fifth of this promise so far, putting $791 million into conservational organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund in November 2020 and just recently reporting his contributions of $1 billion into conservatism into areas including the Congo Basin, the Andes, and regions of the Pacific Ocean. There is no doubt that these funds will have an undeniable positive impact fighting against the issue of climate change. Yet any delay in support will only worsen the climate crisis environmental problems to swell, making them more challenging to approach in coming years than if they were addressed at present. It begs serious questions; if Bezos truly believes that climate change is ‘the biggest threat to our planet’, why is he waiting 10 years to commit to solving this crisis? What would the world be like if he committed the remaining $8 billion to aid these problems now?
A further recognisable issue with modern philanthropy is that support is often channelled towards those in advantaged positions instead of the underprivileged. In 2017, two thirds of all charitable donations made by millionaires, nearly £5 billion, went towards either Oxford or Cambridge University. Even contributions to the arts received five times as much in donations as went towards resolving poverty. Aside from how personal interest keeps much needed funds away from the deprived, political interest also decides how the rich give their money away. In the US, individuals like Charles Koch and Georges Soros have been criticised for using their wealth to sway public policy. Every year, billions of dollars are spent influencing the political sphere in the US. Is this a fair expression of speech or a seriously undermined issue of political corruption?
Standing apart from this apathetic and morally questionable style of philanthropy is Mackenzie Scott. Formerly married to the notorious and controversial Jeff Bezos, Scott’s split from the Amazonian tycoon in 2019 marked the beginning of her campaign of benevolent, charitable support. Setting out on her own with a quarter of Bezos’ Amazon shares and a 4% stake (worth a whopping $34 billion), Scott wasted no time ‘pledging’ donations. In only the space of a year, Scott gave away $8.6 billion across nearly 800 groups. This wealth was primarily spread across various social assistance groups, grant-making infrastructure, and educational facilities. Notably, it was given to those who needed it most: whilst Scott donated to colleges and universities, she selected institutions that benefitted members of ethnic minority communities. Amid the outrage caused by the murder of George Floyd, Scott supported various racial equity groups with over $600 million in donations. Additionally, Scott made considerable contributions to food banks and food delivery services in the US to combat food shortages during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott’s resources were rolled out and distributed promptly to have an honest and visible impact on the people and issues she wanted to support.
Moreover, Scott is committed to supporting smaller names, often overshadowed by large-scale charitable efforts. Bloomberg reported that nearly 90% of recipients of Scott’s donations said that it was the largest contribution they had ever received, many of them praising the aid as ‘transformational’. Ms McWhorter, a representative from one of the 60 YWCA organisations that received support from Scott, was brought to tears when she picked up the call informing her of the donation, later commenting that charitable groups led by women of colour were usually ‘at the very bottom of the pile for philanthropists’. Scott’s philanthropy has been commended by a mass of grateful non-profit workers, including the chief executive of the Pride Foundation in Seattle, Katie Carter, who lauded Scott’s ‘mentality of trust’ upon receiving her $3 million gift.
It is Scott’s virtuous and equitable philosophy that is setting her far apart from other philanthropists. She discusses that her goals are not solely based on financial support but also upon spreading awareness of neglected causes. Commenting on her donations of $2.7 billion across 286 groups, Scott said: ‘I want to de-emphasize privileged voices and cede focus to others, yet I know some media stories will focus on wealth. The headline I would wish for this post is ‘286 Teams Empowering Voices the World Needs to Hear’. Scott is eager to use her resources to distribute wealth and awareness in the name of ‘organisations in categories and communities that have been historically underfunded and overlooked’, the typical target group of her philanthropic endeavours.
Scott should also be admired for the astounding rate at which she has been handing out donations. Out of his total pledges of roughly $12 billion, worth around 6% of his entire fortune, Bezos has only given away $1.5 billion. Keep in mind that this consists of all his pledges during his 24-year tenure as a billionaire. Comparatively, since her split from Bezos, Scott has given away 14% of her $60 billion net worth – $8.6 billion – and intends on continuing her movement ‘until the safe is empty’.
Charity can be an ethical issue that one might care to walk on eggshells when discussing with others. It can create many tricky questions; how much should one be giving away to others? What kind of causes should one support? What groups are there that one trust to carry out their efforts effectively? It only gets even more complicated when we start to discuss how much other people should be giving away, even if those in question are fortunate enough to be far more financially secure than most. However, Scott’s example validates the arguments that the super-rich can be more effective in their philanthropy. Scott has brought the qualities of integrity, morality, and fairness to her role as one of the world’s leading philanthropists, and we should hope that she is able to share those qualities with both the other super-rich of the globe and the rest of us.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image: Evan Agostini, Invision/AP