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Is the influence of the “One Percent” good for the world of philanthropy?

Raymond Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America Raymond Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America

Is the influence of the “One Percent” good for the world of philanthropy? The nonprofit sector has been struggling with this issue for some time and the political debates of the last few months heightened by the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to sharpen the issue.

Let’s face facts. Much of the public attention goes to small charitable contributions from individuals: think Kiva, and DonorsChoose, and all the talk about texting donations to a favorite cause. Although it may attract celebrities and news articles, and sometimes a nonprofit may even raise millions of dollars through these means, these efforts pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the super-wealthy.

Last week I trudged through pouring rain to attend a Georgetown University seminar, presented by the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, where the speakers explored these issues. The presenters covered a range of topics: Is it okay when strapped governments ask philanthropists to help pay for public health issues? Are billionaires changing public policy? Can philanthrocapitalism change the world? Do private funds reinforce democracy or obstruct democratic decision-making? All big and excellent questions. Unfortunately, there were no easy solutions and I left with new questions to ponder, though few answers.

There were a few common themes that I think are helpful to think about:

  • Raymond Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America, observed that not everything can be solved by a techno-capitalism market approach. This is a good reminder in a time when so much emphasis seems to be placed on technology, rational giving, and measuring impact. Market failures require rights corrections, not just marketplaces, Offenheiser remarked. He reminded us that long before we even learned the word philanthrocapitalism, large foundations started by wealthy individuals were making major contributions to changing society. Conclusion: philanthrocapitalists didn’t invent bold philanthropy that looks for results–they’re only the latest wave and only part of the picture.
  • Big money has many people feeling very uneasy. Big money now dominates politics with SuperPACs. Big money – maybe some of the same people – now seem to be dominating philanthropy. That’s what the inarticulate, primal scream of the Occupy Wall Street was partially about. More transparency and accountability about names and motives would go a long way towards easing some of the suspicion.
  • Is the accumulation of many small gifts from many individuals actually better for philanthropy than big gifts from a small number of individuals since it not only also makes a difference, it encourages civil engagement and accountability? Small and courageous gifts often

How do you think the super rich fit into strategic philanthropy? Do you believe the influence of the one percent helps or hurts the philanthropic cause?

Topics: Charitable Giving