Appreciating Altruism: Against the Backlash Against Philanthropy


I was at a party for an art book publisher recently, when someone asked what I do. “I write about philanthropy,” I said, then braced for the response. While few people find fault with generosity as a trait, once the word “philanthropy” enters the conversation, the discourse today often shifts. Giving back becomes suspect. The givers are seen as the takers. At the party, my interlocutor expressed interest tinged with judgment.  

A friend of mine went so far as to tell me she found it “disgusting” that a billionaire philanthropist I once interviewed enjoys the experience of giving away money to help working people fill financial gaps. She didn’t want to know anything about him specifically — his background, giving approach, or how he made his money. Instead, her anger at our ever-more-rapacious system of capitalism led her to blame any individual who succeeded in it, most especially, it seemed, one who had found a way to find joy in giving back. Would his giving have gained her approbation, I wondered, if he did it in a state of guilt and existential despair? 

These are anecdotes, sure, but they point to a growing backlash against philanthropy, a negative sentiment that has waxed and waned in the U.S. since John D. Rockefeller proposed the Rockefeller Foundation in the early 20th century, and is gaining steam again now. It’s fashionable to assume that donors do it solely for the PR, or for the tax breaks. Or for some other strictly self-serving reason. 

In some circles, questioning the motives of givers has become a way to show off your social cred. It’s shorthand for saying, “I am a concerned citizen who is deeply upset by the rising wealth gap. I am a conscientious critic of the status quo. I am an independent thinker who, by the way, has read that piece in The New Yorker, “Would the World Be Better off Without Philanthropists?”

As someone who writes about philanthropy and has met many incredibly hard-working donors actively engaged in using their own money to improve others’ lives, as well as hundreds of smart, earnest staff members employed at highly effective foundations, funding intermediaries and funding affinity groups, I find this backlash against philanthropy upsetting. While I understand some of the drive behind the sentiment, it strikes me as misplaced anger, often laced with misanthropy, and a potentially harmful trend that threatens to undermine the positive human value of giving to help others. 

This is not to say that we should fawn over all gazillionaires meting out money, particularly given that some people surely are self-interested, using big charity plays to polish their personal or professional brands. Nor should we condone everything about the way philanthropy works in the United States and the specifics of the charitable tax code, some of which certainly feeds into the backlash.

But the truth is, not all private donors are self-serving, and not all wealthy people are rapacious takers. Making that assumption plays into the blame-mongering and polarization overtaking so much of U.S. civil society, sabotaging positive, productive conversation — even about philanthropy’s weaknesses. It also distracts us, preventing us from recognizing philanthropy’s power for good and working to leverage that. It may well discourage us from engaging with altruism and generosity personally, by making selflessness akin to selfishness. 

Legitimate cause for concern

Certainly, there are valid reasons to express concern about the philanthropic sector as a whole. Some foundations take a top-down approach, continuing a version of the unequal power dynamics that contributed to the amassing of private wealth in the first place. Many foundations lack diversity. All are free to invest the 95% of their unspent endowments in any way they wish, including in companies that perpetuate the very problems philanthropy seeks to solve. Philanthropy also lets private, unelected individuals pay for policy-level impact of their own choosing. 

These facts fuel some of the backlash, as does an overall rise in populism and a mistrust of big institutions dating back at least to the 1970s. Pretty much everyone is suspicious of Big Something these days: Big Government, Big Corporations, Big Grammar. Even before the pandemic, Big Giving had come under fire. “Billionaire mega-givers were accused of subverting democracy by using private wealth to influence public life and divert attention from their misdeeds,” as IP founder David Callahan wrote here.  

Or, as Robert Reich told Vox in an interview about his 2020 book, “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”: “Big philanthropy — more than ordinary small donations that most people make — is an exercise of power. It’s an attempt to direct your private assets for some public influence, often with a naked aspiration to change public policy.”

To be sure, big donors sit high atop a truly sickening wealth divide. There are now more than 22 million millionaires in the U.S. running around buying second homes — triple the number just two decades ago. No other country has this many millionaires or has seen this sharp of an increase. Globally, there are now nearly 30,000 “centimillionaires” — people with assets of $100 million or more — double the number from two decades earlier, according to Henley & Partners, a firm specializing in “citizenship by investment.” The number of centimillionaires in New York City alone grew by 22% between 2022 and 2023.

Meanwhile, some 38 million people live at or below the federal poverty line in the U.S.. Millions more can’t earn enough to cover rent and other basic costs. And if the term “citizenship by investment” makes you queasy, no wonder. The number of global refugees — people unable or unwilling to return to their homelands due to persecution or fear of persecution — has now surpassed 100 million people, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Billionaires are buying second citizenships while desperate refugees seek safety in any country that will take them. While these two groups are not passing each other in the Centurion Lounge at the Hong Kong airport or sharing a meal of seared scallops curated by Alain Ducasse at the Air France Première Lounge in Paris, they are certainly cross-migrating in the minds of concerned people everywhere. 

What critics of philanthropy get wrong

These are all real problems that warrant our anger and angst. Yet the backlash against philanthropy conflates system-level problems with individual good works. It confuses global crises with attempts to solve them. It mixes up the challenges facing the sector with the often-essential support it provides, not to mention the successful interventions and programs it seeds. Viewing individual giving strictly through a lens of national income inequality suggests that none of us can be good actors while living in a flawed system. It implies that no good works matter when there is rot in the whole, and by extension, we should all just give up trying to make any difference at all. 

This pervasive negative view wraps altruism in doubt, robbing us all of the ability to see and be inspired by truly awesome programs. It casts suspicion on the virtues of empathy and caring. It even undermines the process of getting riled up about an issue and doing something about it — that fundamental can-do attitude that we freely embrace in private sector settings.    

Anti-philanthropism also ignores the huge benefits philanthropy has brought and continues to bring. Just in my own reporting in the past couple years, I’ve witnessed the city of Austin fund a guaranteed income program for underserved residents through its general operating funds, only after philanthropy funded a pilot guaranteed income program, gathered data, and presented proof of concept. I’ve seen state after state route millions toward multisector plans to serve our aging population, and there’s now talk of a national plan to do the same, a move taken by policy makers only after foundations pulled together to elevate the issue and encourage leaders to commit to it. I had the chance to join the crowds in Paris’s now-beloved new art museum Fondation Louis Vuitton, funded by the billionaire Bernard Arnault only after a change in French tax law made philanthropy financially advantageous. 

Philanthropy covers some 44% of scientific research at universities and research institutions, and does so with a high level of flexibility and risk taking. Philanthropy is helping keep independent media coverage alive by funding nonprofit newsrooms such as ProPublica. Philanthropy is a huge player in sustainable global development. The Rockefeller Foundation itself, which was founded in 1913, pioneered a systems-change approach to charity and has funded the University of Chicago, the development of penicillin, other health-focused institutions and cures too numerous to list, as well as the artist residency Bellagio, and more. And then there are the philanthropy-backed civil institutions we all rely on and take for granted, like libraries and museums. Philanthropy not only seeds ideas later embraced by government, but so much of philanthropy’s focus today is challenging unjust systems themselves, as evidenced by the field’s focus on criminal justice reform, protecting and expanding voter rights and challenging its own norms and leadership.  

Finally, let’s not forget one thing: Not everyone with too much money gives it away. The same is true, unfortunately, with time. We are living in an era marked not only by extreme wealth disparity but also by a rising divide between those who feel they have something to contribute and those who don’t think they have anything of value to give at all — not their time, their expertise, their loving nature, their skill at boxing up food for the homeless. Increasingly, we are experiencing not only a concentration of wealth and charitable giving but also of volunteering, what the Aspen Institute’s Jane Wales calls “a concentration of agency.” There are so many ways to contribute to a better world that don’t require a lot of money, but increasingly, people don’t see what they have to give, or how, or when. Some of this lack of engagement stems from inequality — too much scrambling to pay the bills can leave too little time to spend in the service of others. But I suspect some of it, particularly among those not under financial duress, is connected to the denigration and suspicions of altruism. 

I advocate for a shift in focus. Rather than tearing down those with money and agency enough to share it, let’s help more people see themselves as givers. Rather than participating in the culture of personal attack and pervasive negativity, let’s learn more about philanthropy’s best practices and encourage more givers and would-be givers to adopt them. Let's get more people to experience the joy of giving, at any level, no remorse required.

Let’s simultaneously continue to work on addressing the flaws in the multitude of systems around us, which is, of course, the endgame of so much of philanthropy itself.