Book Forum on Callahan's The Givers / New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

Philanthropy in a Neoliberal Age: A Review of David Callahan’s THE GIVERS

Editors’ Note: David Callahan’s The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age has been one of the more widely anticipated and widely discussed  books on philanthropy in recent memory (see, for instance, reviews and coverage here, here, here, and here). At HistPhil, we were keenly interested not only in the content of the book but in its reception as a way to understand how leading thinkers approach the questions regarding philanthropy, freedom, and civic equality that Callahan raises. To that end, we asked a few of those thinkers to weigh in with their responses to The Givers; we then added some thoughts of our own to create a mini-book forum. The posts in the forum, from Alice O’Connor, Kristin Goss, Stanley Katz, and Benjamin Soskis, should not be read merely as traditional reviews but as elucidations of and enlargements upon key themes in Callahan’s book, through the prism of the authors’ own interests and preoccupations. We’re curious to hear our readers’ reactions to the book as well. If you’ve read the book–and you should–please do add your thoughts in the “Comments” section.

We live in a new age of philanthropy.  And it has David Callahan worried.  More gilded than golden, it has been marked by the accumulation of unimaginably vast private fortunes, conspicuous and self-congratulatory “giving pledges” and unabashed confidence in the power of beneficent billions to fix society’s most intractable problems—even, indeed especially, those democratically elected polities have been unable to solve.  Not coincidentally, it has also been dominated by a politics of public austerity and marketized reform, especially in such traditionally philanthropic areas as education, social welfare, and basic scientific research.

However much we might be expected to welcome the prospect of having private billions to make up the slack, Callahan wants us to pay attention to what he sees as a deeper threat.  Rather than a tool for democratizing and sharing the fruits of capitalist wealth, he argues, in the new era of billion-dollar fortunes philanthropy has become an extension of the growing concentration of political and cultural power in the hands of an extraordinarily rich, unaccountable and self-appointed civic elite.  And the more big philanthropy exercises its influence in policy and public affairs, the more it contributes to the diminished capacity of government, labor unions, political parties, and civic organizations to operate as a countervailing political voice.

Callahan has no shortage of material to work with in making this case, starting with the breathtaking volume of wealth being funneled into philanthropic enterprises by the recently-swelled ranks of the billion and multi-million-dollar class, with expectations of further riches to come.  Not surprisingly, he gets considerable fodder from following the flood of big philanthropic dollars into think tanks and issue-oriented policy campaigns, where the lines between public welfare and straight-out political spending are easily and often blurred.  No case study fits the bill quite so well, though, as the dubious and ongoing quest for charter-based school reform, which along with Silicon Valley’s eagerness to spread new learning technologies has made K-12 education the laboratory of the billionaire class.

More striking and original as a contribution, though, is Callahan’s systematic excavation of the giving philosophies and strategies of the Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and old-line industry titans who make up this philanthropic power elite.  These are varied, in line with what Callahan describes as the “diversified” make-up of today’s (almost entirely white) upper class.  But there is a distinctive hubris at their core.  For all their talk of “giving back,” having more than they need, and feeling humbled by the outsized windfall from their own success stories, they are utterly convinced of their capacity as individuals to change the world, whether by applying their unique entrepreneurial know-how, identifying strategic “leverage points,” or otherwise mimicking the ways of the millennial market by “disrupting” old-line philanthropic—and public sector—practices.  Indeed, this generation of superrich givers is especially vocal about its desire to break with the past, vowing to give their money quickly, to give it away themselves, to invest it in risky experiments that no one else would fund, and to give it with more measurable social impact than ever before.

As Callahan recognizes, to the ‘old’ philanthropic establishment these claims to novelty are admittedly hard to take, especially from people who seem utterly unaware of how very much they sound like the self-styled renegade founders of the institutions they claim to upend, from Andrew Carnegie (who promised to replace “indiscriminate charity” with the “superior wisdom” of wealthy capitalists) to Henry Ford II (who spoke of philanthropy as society’s “venture capital”) to the systems-trained federal budget analysts of the 1960s (who stood for nothing if not subjecting social programs to rigorous impact measures).  Nor are the new gilded age givers inclined to acknowledge how the neoliberalized version of capitalism that continuously feeds their philanthropic fortunes also continuously destabilizes the lives of people and places they aim to help.

Such observations are among the most sharp-eyed in the book, all the more so because they draw from fairly extensive interviews Callahan conducted with philanthropy’s .01 percent and within the specialized advisory, brokerage, and influence networks their billions have spawned. They also build on Callahan’s connections in wider philanthropic circles as founder of Inside Philanthropy, the subscription-financed website that aims to “pull back the curtain” on the notoriously opaque industry with critical reporting while simultaneously serving as a kind of standard bearer for progressive practices in the field.

Still, I found myself wanting to have more direct testimony from outside the stratosphere of big (and I suppose what we now need to call mid-size) philanthropy, especially about the issues of power and influence this era of high-stakes giving presents.  How have nonprofit organizations dealt with pressures to enter the big money sweepstakes and have they changed their institutional priorities and practices in response? (There is more to this question, but I think here of all the groups that have amped up their fundraising strategies to attract high-end donations, sometimes with socially exclusive appeals).  How have advocates of a robust and adequately-funded public sector grappled with the implications of turning to deep-pocketed private donors for support—not to mention all those parents, teachers, and K-12 school administrators who never had a choice about joining the grand experiment? Who ends up bearing the social costs of philanthropic risk-taking and systemic disruption when the experiments don’t pan out? Has the lure of big philanthropic dollars led advocacy organizations to privilege elite or otherwise donor-favored voices in public debate?  And what of the groups that have deliberately eschewed or are simply out of the running for mega-sized donations—are they finding it harder to get by?  Callahan weighs in on some of these issues, with requisite references to a bygone era of Tocquevillean associationalism and even-handed representations of differing points of view.  But these discussions are mostly abstract and lack the same level of sourcing he devotes to elaborating the giving philosophies of the philanthropic elite.  This is not quite the same as taking stock of what the era of big philanthropy looks like from the other side of the wealth gap, and how it is affecting the real practices of civic democracy.

Such stock-taking seems especially important now, as the sense of a great divide between politically empowered capital and everyday democracy grows ever more palpable and polarizing.  After all, the very fact of big philanthropy—in its old or new gilded age guises—rests on a decidedly undemocratic premise: that society’s wealthiest elite, having amassed huge amounts of capital, should be entrusted and empowered to advance the public good as they see fit. This idea has been raising hackles ever since Andrew Carnegie uttered it in the Gospel of Wealth, among critics who resisted the thought of ceding capital even more power and influence than it already had.  Callahan generally allies himself with this critique.  Yet he frequently hedges it with unspecified references to the benefits of having an independent sector with the freedom to take bold risks, and to democracy’s incapacity to confront major social challenges with the foresight and alacrity philanthropy presumably brings.  Considering what’s at stake—Callahan thinks we face a future of “benign plutocracy” without measures to rein in the power of these wealthy “super-citizens”—his policy prescriptions strike me as similarly muted.  They focus principally on incremental proposals to hold big philanthropy accountable, including restrictions on “political” giving that, if history is any guide, could easily be used to go after funding for legitimate progressive causes such as defending minority voting rights.

Callahan’s incrementalism aside, the analysis in his book makes it clear that little will change without more basic reforms to confront the structural and political inequities that have underwritten the rise of such massive concentrations of wealth.  That might strike some as an unrealistically ambitious task, but the debates are already taking shape and they are opening the door to such politically marginalized ideas as steeper wealth taxes and jobs and income guarantees.  By bringing the classways of big philanthropy more sharply into focus, Callahan’s book only adds to the case for bringing those reform debates to the top of the public agenda.

-Alice O’Connor

Alice O’Connor is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has written extensively about the history of philanthropy, and is the author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. Historyand Social Science for What? Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up among other publications. Before joining the UCSB faculty in 1996, she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council in New York, and directed a small nonprofit in Washington, DC. 

2 thoughts on “Philanthropy in a Neoliberal Age: A Review of David Callahan’s THE GIVERS

  1. This is a great commentary on The Givers. I think the “solution” to a lot of the problems you raise arise in the last paragraph where you write about debates that are “opening the door to such politically marginalized ideas as steeper wealth taxes and jobs and income guarantees.” Ironically, the debate about Universal Basic Income is partly being driven by Silicon Valley philanthropists and some of the nonprofit beneficiaries, including GiveDirectly.

    I want to disagree, though, with a claim you make (and that is often made) about education philanthropy. You write about “all those parents, teachers, and K-12 school administrators who never had a choice about joining the grand experiment” to reform schools. I don’t see the evidence for that claim.

    First, if you are talking about public schools, not public school is obligated to take philanthropic dollars, and public school districts are democratically governed, at least in theory. If Gates or Eli Broad comes to a public school with an idea that the superintendent or principal do not like, they should turn it down. If parents/voters don’t like their kids being experimented upon, they can speak up or elect a new school board. There’s nothing more democratic than that.

    Second, it has the absence of education reform, particularly around the availability of charter schools, that leaves parents without a choice. Whether or not charter schools improve academic performance (and the evidence seems to be mixed), it’s inarguable that they offer an alternative to parents. The choices of those parents deserve to be respected.

    My own take on The Givers can be found at nonprofitchronicles.com.
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  2. I appreciate this review of my book by Alice O’Connor, a scholar whose work I’ve admired for many years. She is entirely right that a shortcoming of the book is that it doesn’t flesh out how giving by the new donors is playing out on the ground in local communities and how it’s shaping dynamics within the nonprofit sector as organizations scramble to woo emerging philanthropists.

    Dale Rusakoff’s book on Newark, The Prize, is a great example of the value of a truly textured analysis of the effects of big philanthropy. We could use more such analyses, with special attention to how some of big public-private partnerships work in practice. My own agenda in The Givers was to illuminate how the big donors think and operate, with attention to how their giving is broadly affecting how public policy debates work in U.S. society.

    One quibble with this review. O’Connor suggests I make “unspecified references to the benefits of having an independent sector with the freedom to take bold risks, and to democracy’s incapacity to confront major social challenges with the foresight and alacrity philanthropy presumably brings.”

    Actually, I’m quite specific about the shortcomings of democracy when it comes to tackling certain kinds of problems. In particular, I point out how philanthropy can be useful in overcoming collective action problems in democracy, by countering the power of hyper-organized interest groups — like the fossil fuel industry or teachers unions. While the public at large may never get organized enough and give enough small donations to challenge interest group power, philanthropists can step forward to finance such challenges. Bloomberg’s giving to counter the coal industry is a great example, as I discuss in detail. Education reform donors see themselves as playing a similar role in regard to teachers unions.

    I also point out how philanthropy can speed along the expansion of social rights, leap-frogging the slower movement of public opinion. I cite giving for LGBT rights as an example.

    Rob Reich has offered perhaps the best elaboration of how philanthropy can make up for the shortcomings of democracy. One has to fairly engage the case for such upsides as part of any discussion of the downsides about philanthropy and democracy.

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