Today, Fortune published a piece by sociologist Linsey McGoey, “Do today’s philanthropists hurt more than they help?” The author applies the history of philanthropy in furthering her argument on the contemporary state of philanthropic giving in the United States, so we are bringing the piece to readers’ attention.
In her indictment of contemporary philanthropic practices, McGoey specifically draws comparisons between a former era’s Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr. and today’s Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Martin Shkreli. For her contemporary lens, she focuses squarely on philanthrocapitalists, equates them with effective altruists; and under this umbrella, discusses Gates, Buffett, and Shkreli along with philosopher Peter Singer, authors Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, and organizations such as Google.
Throughout the article, McGoey suggests that this first early-twentieth century “golden age” of philanthropy had much in common with today’s second golden age of philanthrocapitalists and effective altruists. While individuals such as Singer might celebrate Gates and Buffett as “the most effective altruists in history,” McGoey writes that these two individuals have not proven to be any more effective in their giving than these predecessors. And as much as today’s philanthrocapitalists and effective altruists might want to claim novelty in their approach to giving, Carnegie and Rockefeller also sought to make a profit while doing good.
After stripping contemporary philanthropy’s (or more specifically, philanthrocapitalists’ and effective altruists’) claims to originality, she moves on to criticize the sector. For example, she writes: “To date, there has been far more hype than hard evidence about effective altruism’s achievements; its progress often seems to be measured and underpinned by self-sustaining feedback loops.”
I can understand McGoey’s instinct to criticize contemporary philanthropy. After all, I would venture to say that anyone with a sense of social justice cannot help but see the inherent inequality in the philanthropist-grantee relationship and wish for a more egalitarian relationship between haves and have nots. Vocalizing this perspective, McGoey quotes from Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism”: “The best among the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”
That said, I wish McGoey would have provided more precise definitions for philanthrocapitalists and effective altruists and explained in greater detail these two movements’ relationship to each other and to contemporary philanthropic trends more broadly. By doing so, she could have achieved more nuanced comparisons with early twentieth century philanthropists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller. And in this way, the historical lens could have informed a more subtle picture of what is new and what is not, and also what should be.
-Maribel Morey, co-editor of HistPhil