Philanthropy in the News

What is New about Sean Parker’s Vision for Philanthropy?

Editors’ Note: Whether it was meant to or not, the publicity roll-out for tech mogul Sean Parker’s Parker Foundation makes a series of historical arguments and raises a host of questions that are worth grappling with. What is really new about what Parker calls “hacker philanthropy?” What should we make about Parker’s arguments, best expressed in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, about the sector’s past failures and inadequacies and how they might instruct us on the sector’s future? And how about the “usable past” he promotes–Carnegie’s libraries as proto-hacker philanthropy; a caricature of lumbering, sclerotic, and ineffective foundations cluttering the landscape; the veneration of an earlier generation of political-minded advocacy funders? How should we disentangle techno-blather from legitimate critiques of the philanthropic sector? We’d love to get our readers’ view of these issues and use the Parker WSJ op-ed as a jumping off point for a discussion of how to think historically, soberly and critically about the intersection of Silicon Valley culture and philanthropy. Please do weigh in either by email, Twitter, or in the comment section! Our first comment on Parker, by Stan Katz, takes as its jumping off point the New York Times article that describes his views, which is also worth a read. 

I was fascinated to read the June 24 NYT piece by Michael de la Merced on the young Napster-Facebook mogul, Sean Parker, “A Tech Billionaire Seeks a New Approach to Charity.”

Almost all I know about Parker is derived from this article, but if Merced has it right, I think we should be concerned – Parker wants to be known “as a distinct form of philanthropist.” His aim is “to swing for the fences on issues that he thinks can be solved” by making “big bets in a concentrated way”. He is betting that, among other things, his donations can “conquer malaria”, develop cancer treatments based on the immune system and cure allergies. Merced thinks that Parker is “bringing . . .programmer culture to charitable giving. Hackers tend not to tackle problems that they don’t think have solutions.” He is against “incrementalism” and thinks that “it’s better to be known for failing than for . . . failing to try”. He wants to make an “impact”. Curiously, one example Parker gives is that “sending private militias as global peacekeepers would be better than deploying government armies”.

Knowledgeable readers will not be surprised by some of this, which is mainstream venture philanthropy rhetoric in its emphasis on effectiveness and impact. Some of the language is quite different however, especially in its apparently arbitrary selection of investment objectives, its toleration of very high risk and the acceptability of mission failure. It is quite possible that Parker actually has a more coherent philanthropic approach. But for this post I’ll take his language at face value, and ask where such a philanthropic stance fits in the history of American philanthropy.

Historians of philanthropy have to take care not to be reductionist and instrumentalist. The right question can never be: what would Andrew Carnegie have thought? But it is appropriate to try to imagine the differences between the dominant assumptions of the early donors and those expressed by a contemporary 35 year old megaphilanthropist. Carnegie, Rockefeller and Rosenwald would not have used sports or gambling metaphors, but neither would they have specified the highly targeted philanthropic goals articulated by Parker. They would have shared Parker’s reliance on research (his first major grants are to prominent California universities for malaria and allergy research) – compare the early Rockefeller interest in research on tropical diseases at the Rockefeller Institute with Parker’s targeted strategy. They dreamed of eradicating disease but did not, I think, imagine themselves as “swinging for the fences” — few home run hitters bat .300, after all. They certainly would not have embraced failure as a badge of honor. Parker represents something quite new in big philanthropy, even in the context of the twenty-first century.

Parker is not only very rich, but very young and very inexperienced in philanthropy. Probably he will express himself differently ten years for now. But it’s hard not to worry about young megaphilanthropists who feel confident that they can throw lots of money at very specific problems about which they clearly do not know very much. I teach public policy, and I’d be very concerned about a graduate student who told me that he felt confident that private militias should replace government military forces in troubled parts of the world. Wouldn’t you? And I think the man who established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace would have been, at best, puzzled by the notion. Of course, Carnegie believed he could end war, so big ambitions have always been part of the philanthropy game.

[It appears that Parker and his publicists are going public about his philanthropy. As I was revising this post I discovered interviews with Sean Parker in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, both dated June 26, but the points I wanted to make were relevant to the New York Times article, and I will write about Parker more generally in a subsequent post.]

-Stanley N. Katz

A co-founder of HistPhil, Stanley N. Katz is Lecturer with rank of Professor in Public and International Affairs and Director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University. He is President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, the national humanities organization in the United States. 

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