The Role of Private Philanthropy

In recent months, there have been a number of voices arguing that private philanthropy should reflect agreed upon societal needs and not be so “private.” There are numerous arguments which inform this perspective – the most cogent argue that philanthropic money is for the public good and therefore should be held to some standards that demonstrate a commitment to the public good. If there are hungry, homeless, illiterate, impoverished people, is it legitimate to support wealthy cultural institutions?

The logical extension of this argument is that there should be some consensus measure which determines what social needs are – and implicitly, what they aren’t.

There are numerous problems with this:

It may seem to be obvious if we compare supporting Harvard vs. a homeless shelter, or the Metropolitan Museum vs. a soup kitchen; one might be tempted to say that funding one should be favored over another. But where does one draw the line? If not Harvard, what about a community college? Or a charter school? Or a charter school in an underpriveledged neighborhood? And if not the Metropolitan Museum, what about an after school arts program? In a suburb? In the inner city? It doesn’t take long to discover that there are no obvious or easy lines to be drawn.

Another problem is the challenge of philanthropic fads. If consensus – read “popular” – is allowed to drive legitimacy, how does one account for the ebb and flow of the popular will? Do we want to jeopardize support for organizations and institutions providing for crucial services because they aren’t in fashion this year? A healthy sector will need balance even when what is popular may not lead that way.

A more essential issue is the role of private philanthropy. If it is to be governed by some external standard, why even retain this sector? Let’s simply raise taxes and allocate to what the legislature – presumably representing the popular will – approves. But it is my view that we have private philanthropy to do what government shouldn’t – or won’t do. To be able to fund that which might not be popular or fit the current consensus. To take risks which our tax dollars shouldn’t. To push for the not yet proven or not particularly popular.

History teaches us that xenophobia, or less dramatically, socially unpopular reasons, are not very good or responsible ways to set public policy. That is why we have guarantees of rights. And in philanthropy, that is why we have private philanthropy – so that it can fund those things which some may perceive to be in the long term public interest, even if not necessarily consistent with the short term majority as reflected in opinion polls.

Organizations can make mistakes in their choice of programs and projects. Funders can make mistakes in what they fund. Given the choice, it is far better to be mistaken than wrong.

Excerpted from A Mosque and the Philanthropy Question.

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and regularly blogs at Wise Philanthropy.