Philanthropy is still dominated by the ultrawealthy, but asking billionaires to solve inequality is colossally stupid

Finding Nemo Bruce
Bruce, one of the vegetarian sharks in “Finding Nemo.”

  • If 2020 has made anything clear, it’s that billionaires aren’t going to save us — and that goes for all the millions they spend on philanthropy.
  • Philanthropy is currently dominated by high-net-worth individuals, and philanthropy was already serving an outsized role in American life even before the inconsistent government response to the pandemic.
  • Anand Giridharadas, the author whose book “Winners Take All” criticizes this overreliance, told Business Insider that instead of funneling money into causes they’re passionate about, billionaires should instead be taking less from workers.
  • The reliance on high-net-worth individuals for philanthropy also leaves a gap that the government needs to step in and fill.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There’s an apt metaphor for the rhetoric of “billionaires will save us” in beloved children’s cartoon “Finding Nemo.”

Our protagonists – both fish – come across sharks who paradoxically claim to be vegetarian. The sharks, to their credit, seem pretty nice. They’re trying to reform, and don’t want the fish to be scared of them. Their refrain? “Fish are friends, not food.”

They seem to be holding strong until Dory gets a nosebleed. There’s literally blood in the water; primordial instincts win out, and the sharks attack. The fish were right to be scared.

In the case of widening inequality during the coronavirus pandemic, the refrain could become: “Lower-income people and workers are friends, not food.”

But when billionaires’ net worths grow by nearly $1 trillion during a pandemic – all while their frontline workers fall ill or don’t receive hazard pay, per a report by the Institute for Policy Studies – workers are right to feel scared. Even when those billionaires turn around and give hefty donations to coronavirus-related causes.

Philanthropy and charitable giving has become one major way for Americans to help each other in times of need, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. When the world came to a halt in March, Americans turned to GoFundMe, which the New York Times called “America’s Safety Net,” while the Gates Foundation has poured millions into pandemic-related causes, all as the government has failed to pass another stimulus following the expiration of the previous package in July.

Philanthropy on the whole is also “top-heavy,” dominated by high-net-worth individuals. Per a report from Inequality.org, small donor giving has declined over the past two decades, and “any increase in giving has been driven by donations by mega-donors and mega gifts over $300 million.” That means there’s fewer – but richer – people driving donations.

“We don’t need the richest and most powerful people in the society to give more. We need them to take less,” Anand Giridharadas, the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” told Business Insider. 

“We don’t need them to make a difference. We need them to stop making a killing at the society’s expense. We don’t need them to increase their generosity. We need them to reduce their complicity and injustice.”

Anand Giridharadas
Anand Giridharadas, author of the book “Winners Take All.”

Giving is still dominated by high-net-worth individuals

This week, nonprofit organizations and foundations observed Giving Tuesday. It’s a day that a grassroots movement has been increasingly successful in connecting to charitable giving after the consumer blitzes of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Giridharadas said there’s an important distinction between everyday Americans donating to causes they support and the ultrawealthy pouring huge donations into various causes. Someone donating $100 to a beloved cause is, as Giridharadas notes, “for the good” and worthy of celebration.

But ultrawealthy philanthropy is a different beast entirely, he said, because it’s “engaging in giving at a scale that is quasi-governmental in ways that often seek to erase and obscure” the ultrawealthy’s role in causing many of the social problems that they laterally become interested in solving.

Even though “Winners Take All” was published in 2018, it remains a hot-button publication, and still comes up in interviews with billionaires. In December 2020, one such billionaire, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, was asked by TIME magazine to comment on the book. 

Schmidt said he hasn’t read the book, that it has been described to him, and that he thinks there’s plenty of examples to both prove and disprove its thesis. Schmidt also said that Giridharadas’ main argument, that billionaires use philanthropy to alleviate social pressure while shaping change in a way to benefit themselves, “is certainly not my goal.”

A notable Democratic donor, with close ties to the Obama White House, Schmidt acknowledged that “the American Dream is in trouble,” as the average person hasn’t been doing much better over the last decade, while “the elite, obviously including myself, have done super well.”

A representative for Schmidt declined to comment to Business Insider.

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., and former CEO of Google.

A U-shaped philanthropy curve

Research has shown there’s a “U” shape of giving, with lower-income people – particularly those making under $30,000 a year – and higher-income people giving the most. 

Jacob Harold is the executive vice president of Candid, a nonprofit that helps connect people with information and data on giving. He said when looking at the numbers of how much people are giving, it’s important to recognize the distinction between giving as a percentage of income or as a percentage of wealth.

“You have folks at the lower end of the spectrum who really don’t have a lot of wealth,” Harold said. “And you also have people at the upper end of the spectrum, who are giving a lot as a percentage of their income, but actually aren’t touching their wealth, and so from that perspective are actually being less generous.”

High-net-worth individuals do generally give at a higher rate than anyone else. A 2018 study from Bank of America found that 90% of high-net-worth households had donated to charity in the past year. Meanwhile, a May 2020 Gallup survey found that 73% of American adults said they’d given to charity, a new low. That figure was even lower for lower-income households.

Dianne Chipps Bailey, managing director, National Philanthropic Strategy Executive at Bank of America, said the gap is “huge,” but grassroots initiatives like Giving Tuesday can help bridge it.

Among Bailey’s clients, she said she’s seen a “significant increase in interest” in giving “to achieve racial equity.” Her team has created a four-part starting plan for impactful giving towards racial equity. 

Jacqui Valouch, head of philanthropy at Deutsche Bank Wealth Management, works with high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals. She told Business Insider that giving came to a halt in March, but was boosted “enormously” in the second half of the year.

Bill Gates Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates head up the Gates Foundation.

Some high-net-worth individuals are calling for stricter regulations on that giving

A subset of potential megadonors have even started to call for their own power to be curtailed.

Scott Wallace is the co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund, a member of the Patriotic Millionaires. This group of self-described “proud traitors to their class” wants all Americans to hold the same power as millionaires – and for its own taxes to be raised.

Wallace, who ran for Congress in 2018, told Business Insider, “if I have a choice between annoying some of the wealthiest dynasties in America by making them spend more” and “helping the people in my district be served by nonprofits,” the decision is “a total no-brainer.”

Its current crusade? Reforming charitable giving. The Patriotic Millionaires want to raise the minimum amount of assets that private foundations need to donate per year from 5% to 10%. Wallace said many foundations treat the 5% requirement as a floor, not a ceiling.

Another reform? Deductions for donor-advised funds (DAFs). Currently, someone can put assets into a DAF and deduct that full amount from their taxes immediately; all of that money is earmarked for nonprofit causes, but it could sit there for a while.

Under a related reform proposed by Wallace, DAF users would only get their tax breaks once the money leaves their account, instead of when it enters. Per Wallace, the reforms could unlock $200 billion for nonprofits – which could certainly need it this year.

The groups behind the initiative call it a “Emergency Charity Stimulus.”

anand giridharadas
Anand Giridharadas speaks onstage at Conversations About America’s Future: Senator Elizabeth Warren during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater on March 8, 2019 in Austin, Texas.

But while reforms in giving could help, ultimately the government – and not billionaires – can provide the relief we need

Even if billionaires are donating meaningfully, they’re still individuals with their own interests.

Most importantly, they’re also not a replacement for the government – and that’s only become clearer with the lack of structural support in fighting coronavirus and racial inequities. A nonprofit can’t singlehandedly fend off the devastating effects of a global pandemic.

“We only will succeed with deep government involvement,” Harold said. “Even though it sounds like billionaires have a lot of money, in some ways it’s quite small compared to the trillions that the US government is able to bring to bear.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a role for billionaires. Rather than giving toward individual causes, or putting black squares on Instagram in support of racial equity, Giridharadas said they can fund programs that would benefit not just Black people, but all people – if they pay “proper taxes.”

“Are any of the wealthiest and most powerful people in our society serious about bending the arc toward justice?” Giridharadas asked. “And if so, are they willing to do the only thing that is actually going to get us there, which is fighting for the kind of systemic change that would reduce their own power?”

“And the good news is if they don’t want to do that, that’s fine. That’s sort of what I expect,” he said. “The rest of us have a way to do that – which is called democracy.”

[Editor’s note: The fifth paragraph was amended after publication to clarify that billionaires’ net worths grew by nearly $1 trillion amid the pandemic, per a report by the Institute for Policy Studies.]

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