Editors’ Note: Last Thursday in Washington D.C., HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis attended the Hudson Institute’s event for Linsey McGoey’s No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. Below, he provides a synopsis of the event along with an analysis of McGoey’s presentation.
Last Thursday, the Hudson Institute hosted an event for Linsey McGoey’s new book, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. As the event’s unofficial MC, Hudson’s Bill Schambra, explained, the event was the latest installment of the “Pablo-and-Bill show,” forums in which Schambra and Pablo Eisenberg, a long-time philanthropy activist for grass-roots nonprofits, spark a discussion on an important new work on the sector. That arrangement points to one of the more curious elements of the discourse surrounding philanthropy—the way conservatives and progressives converge in their critiques of the Big Foundations. And as if to illustrate that phenomenon, McGoey, who has herself penned a rousing critique of philanthrocapitalism, sat sandwiched between the two on the stage, with Eisenberg to the audience’s left and Schambra to our right. McGoey gave an impressive performance to a friendly crowd; she has clearly tapped into a deep reservoir of frustration. After a number of sympathetic queries about the threat of big philanthropy, when Schambra asked—practically begged—the audience for a question from the perspective of the Gates Foundation that would knock the speakers back on their heels a bit, an audience member rose and asked about the cultural, social and religious trends that could explain the public’s failure to challenge big philanthropy. It did not seem to knock the speakers back. (You can watch the panel here)
HistPhil will be engaging with No Such Thing as a Free Gift more in the weeks to come, but I wanted to offer some quick thoughts on the panel discussion, especially as related to one particular challenge facing historical reflection on contemporary philanthropy.
One of the main arguments of McGoey’s book is that what is most often heralded as the novel and exciting features of recent trends in philanthropic practice—she deals with a related tangle of them, including philanthrocapitalism, social enterprise and venture philanthropy—are not in fact new but have roots in the early 20th century.
On the other hand, her entire book—and the urgency that roused many of the audience members to hear her speak—is premised on the intuition that there is something new, and troubling, amidst. And so a good chunk of her talk was spent dousing some claims to newness advanced by contemporary philanthropy and fanning others.
She opened with the question of whether this represented a “golden age of philanthropy.” Since giving as a percentage of GDP hasn’t shifted much beyond 2% over the last few decades (so not new), what such an appellation is really referring to is the concentration of massive philanthropic endowments at the top end. So what is new here? It’s not necessarily the emphasis on the measurable results of giving, McGoey suggested, pointing out that the earliest modern foundations established by Rockefeller and Carnegie would have made similar claims (albeit with different metrics). But then she suggested that such technocratic claims have an especially powerful force within the sector these days. In a neat turn of phrase, she argued that we are witnessing “the rise of the tyranny of small measurements” and that this was new. And the willingness to utilize for-profit institutions to achieve traditional non-profits ends—the examples in her book she cited include the Gates Foundation’s giving non-repayable grants to a major telecoms colossus like Vodacom—this again was new, and troubling, to McGoey.
Was the threat that foundations posed to democratic institutions new? On one hand, she pointed out that at the turn of the 20th century, the debate over the legitimacy of the modern American foundation was dominated by precisely those fears. And she argued that contemporary discourse about philanthropy and its “price” could learn much from those earlier decades. So the threat wasn’t new; but there were certainly novel instantiations of it. She spoke particularly about the power that the Gates Foundation exerts over global health organizations such as the WHO by dint of their “voluntary contributions” (nearly matching those of even the largest national funder, the US). She pointed out that just three decades ago, 70% of the WHO’s budget came from assessed contributions from nations, giving the organization some measure of democratic accountability. But now the ratio is flipped, and the WHO is much more dependent on voluntary contributions, tied to the preferences of a few major backers.
There were many other instances throughout the discussion in which McGoey both pointed out disturbing new trends in the philanthropic sector while also suggesting that they were not entirely new. As I mentioned above, her project depends on these dual claims of continuity and discontinuity. These historical interventions had the effect of puncturing some of the pretensions of philanthro-capitalism while also enhancing the menace that McGoey suggested it posed by demonstrating that the challenge that big giving presents to democratic institutions were fundamental to its development. But the historical analysis—even if there were a few places where one could quibble with its details—also points to a way of dealing with those challenges: through careful, deliberate scrutiny. Only by determining what has changed in recent decades and what has not can the public begin to arrive at an adequate understanding of the place of philanthropy in our civic life and what we might do about it.
-Benjamin Soskis, co-editor of HistPhil
[This post has been edited to correct an initial error]