Rethinking the Concept of ‘Philanthropy’

Amy Schiller argues that giving to others is great, but our contemporary notion of philanthropy is broken.

Philanthropy is a problem. Lots of contemporary philanthropy is either useless (rich people funding new buildings for Harvard) or shouldn’t have to happen in the first place (nonprofits fulfilling crucial social roles that the state doesn’t take care of in the age of neoliberalism). The standard left critique of philanthropy is that we should redistribute wealth and income rather than depending on the largesse of the bourgeoisie, who have far too much damned money. But Amy Schiller, in The Price of Humanity, goes beyond this critique and argues that we can engineer a better concept of philanthropy. She joins today to discuss her ideas.

Nathan J. Robinson 

You are critiquing philanthropy and telling us how we can think about it and do it differently. Let’s start with the critique. Your second chapter says that “giving has become shopping.” Let’s take apart what it means for giving to become shopping.

Amy Schiller 

So, giving as shopping is the kind of mass permeation and understanding of philanthropy as a purchase or an investment that you’re making. In other words, it’s treating giving as if it’s an extension of your other market transactions. Examples of this include cause-branded merchandise brands, like Toms and (RED)—the word “red” in parentheses—and the idea is, if you buy these products, then you’re actually giving. With the bundle of money that you’re handing over, your giving is built in because the brand is actually giving back and redistributing it. So, it really makes it convenient for you, the giver/shopper. That’s just one very obvious example.

The extension of that is an attitude towards giving that says, I want to see the receipts behind my dollars: I want to know exactly what impact my personal dollars generated; I want to know what social change I am personally responsible for. There are a number of examples that I elaborate on in the book, but essentially, this is the mass absorption of a view of philanthropy that started with the billionaire class but has really infused many of our sensibilities to make giving much more an extension of our commercial transactions, as opposed to a counterpart of them.

Robinson 

But as you point out in the book, there are deep historical roots to this idea of giving as investing or buying something. You point out that the Christian idea has often been to give to the poor because you’re investing in your salvation. There’s a certain kind of parallel in the way that it’s not even to help them, but it’s to help you.

Schiller 

You hit the nail on the head there. And I should say that I don’t mean that our contemporary billionaire class thought this up all by themselves. I mean that the vocabulary that we use today to perpetuate that attitude became popular first in the contemporary scene in the high level of giving. I trace that in the book with the emergence of Bill Gates and philanthrocapitalism, and that whole set of ideologies that culminates in Effective Altruism, the sort of contemporary version of utilitarianism. But yes, you rightly point out that this attitude does have its roots much further back. I use St. Augustine as my exemplar of it. He literally has words in his sermons trying to convince Christians to target their giving where it will have the most impact. You give like a merchant who sends his wares to faraway lands in the hope that they will return a profit to him eventually. Giving to the poor means that they will transport your goods deeds to heaven. And as I said in another interview, presumably they do this via the service entrance—the real instrumentalization of poor people and their needs for the gratification and salvific benefit of the donor themselves.

Robinson 

You say that giving and investing were conflated—a surrender of money that would not vanish into the ether but would return eventually in the form of rewards for the giver. You cite Pope Leo I preaching in cost-benefit terms, and one of the things that you point out is that this kind of giving is quite self-interested. If you’re just giving to save your soul, you are clearly not doing it just because you care about other people. Early in the book, you talk about seeing people as human beings versus seeing them as this thing called “the poor” that you must give to, or to the blind or the sick. By definition and in a very obvious way, it reduces them, eliminates their humanity, and boils them down to their deprivation as the sole fact of interest in their existence.

Schiller 

Yes, absolutely right. The starting point of the book is that philanthropy means “love of humanity.” And so, the challenge is to say, how do we define humanity? Is humanity defined in a very biopolitical sense, as in mere survival for the sake of being economically productive and strong in numbers as a planetary—or more recently, perhaps as an extraplanetary—labor force? Or is it a definition of humanity that’s much more capacious and appreciative of the qualities that actually make us human, that is, our imagination, our creativity, our ability to collaborate and build an enduring world, and to have multiple perspectives negotiating shared space in a shared world? So, the challenge for me was that, yes, there are some forms of philanthropy that distort that understanding of humanity to be this very reductive form that you describe where people are reduced to their symbolic use—they’re just avatars, I say, of desperation—but there are ways of doing philanthropy that actually affirm this broad vision of what makes us really worthy of love as human beings. 

Robinson 

You open with this wonderful kind of mad lib of the classic charitable pitch:

“[Insert name] is [insert number of years old], a [insert heartwarming detail] with [insert endearing physical feature]. They suffer from [insert ailment]. Every day, they struggle to [insert activity], and have to travel [insert distance] just to get [insert item]. For just [insert small dollar amount], [insert name] could get the item they need for just [insert cents per unit of time]. You could save [insert names].”

Schiller 

Yes. I’m glad that resonated with you. I had a lot of fun writing it.

Robinson 

You worked in fundraising, so you’ve been exposed to a lot of these kinds of appeals. 

Schiller 

Absolutely. It’s my experience in fundraising as a consultant who was embedded in a number of nonprofits, and having to traffic in these rhetorical strategies. It’s not like anyone is oblivious to their manipulations. It’s just like, well, this is what works. And then we have to ask ourselves, why does it work?

Robinson 

There are a number of obvious critiques of philanthropy that can be made, and you do go through them in the book, things like when the rich are deciding what the good causes are, then their priorities become social priorities. One of the things, though, that is totally fascinating and novel about the argument that you make in this book is that the Effective Altruists have this pitch that says, you shouldn’t give to universities and art museums because they are frivolous compared to—morally—the suffering of children with malaria; it’s immoral to donate to something as trivial as an art museum when there are all sorts of sick and poor and dying people in the world. Shouldn’t we prioritize them? Now, obviously, the Effective Altruists also go in very weird directions where they say the most moral thing you could work on is artificial intelligence. Leaving that aside, there is something inherently compelling about that argument on the surface, which is, shouldn’t you care about the worst suffering? Shouldn’t that be your priority?

But you almost flip it on its head and come to the ultimate conclusion that with philanthropy, we should get to a point where it’s about the trivial things—or the seemingly trivial, pointless things—or the things that give us joy. Could you to take us down the path of your argument? 

Schiller 

My concern is really the absolutism of the Effective Altruists’ view, and you gestured towards that. The Effective Altruists are just one extreme expression of what is, for many people, very compelling, which is to say, I do want to address the most marginal cases of highest need. My concern is twofold. To say that is the only or the most ethical way of approaching giving is to reduce all of our engagement with the rest of the world to just survival—just helping the maximum number of people survive—as if there are no other registers of human experience that are important and worthy. They need to be sustained alongside very correct and valid struggles for justice and for making sure that we have a world that can sustain the lives of as many of its inhabitants as possible.

One problem I have is with the flattening effect that argument has, and the second is that it depoliticizes what are ultimately political questions. So for me, the important thing is that, yes, of course, people do need the basics to survive; they do need healthcare, medication, housing, and food. Of course, we need all of those things. But we need to make sure that those are provided as rights and provisions of democratic institutions. So, the undergirding my argument is that philanthropy should be focusing on the things that make us human, that give us joy—these non-urgent needs, or rather the sort of evergreen capacities and passions that we have. What has to undergird that is a commitment to a much fuller infrastructure of government support for our basic needs because those should be provided as matters of right, not as matters of discretion or of having struck the right emotional chord or the right persuasion of self-interest of others. They really should not be subject to that level of instability.

Robinson 

I suppose one way to think about this is to ask yourself, what should GoFundMe be for? And right now, it’s often for paying for serious medical expenses, a funeral, or things that people really shouldn’t have to be begging strangers for. We can say, isn’t it more moral to donate to help people pay their medical expenses than to donate to a community garden or some arts project? But GoFundMe is a terrible way to run a healthcare financing system. You want that problem solved. But importantly, in your argument, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a GoFundMe; that doesn’t mean that crowdfunding should disappear, but should just have a different function.

Schiller 

It struck me for a long time that philanthropy is the only kind of money, or maybe the kind of money with the most leeway, to take a very long and wide view of who it is supposed to benefit. Money that’s used for for-profit initiatives has to start generating profit by a certain time and on a frequent and recurring basis. Money that’s used for social financing from governments—some of this would be solved, of course, if we weren’t so in the thrall of austerity politics, but even then, governments are often pressured to be as cost-efficient as possible. It’s not quite legible to say, let’s build something truly beautiful or grand with this public money that is often difficult to sort of build enough consensus around to be done democratically. Instead, it’s philanthropy that can do what the Cleveland Museum of Art’s motto suggests, which is, build things that exist for the benefit of all the people forever. In my opinion, philanthropic money—and not even necessarily at the grand scale, but even the small scale—is really money that we can use to think far with that long of a horizon and that wide of a scope. 

Robinson 

What’s so interesting about your argument is that, as leftists, our instinct is to say something kind of the same as the Effective Altruists, which is, how can we, in a time of crisis and severe deprivation, be spending money endowing various buildings and public arts project? But you say, in fact, things should be directed towards things that are more urgent, but perhaps not. Perhaps it is the case that philanthropy is this sphere where we can fund the things that are difficult to justify on utilitarian grounds.

Schiller 

Correct. And I know that you, Nathan, are sympathetic to that. I was just looking at your article of—I can’t remember the title—

Robinson 

In praise of the pointless. It’s about a piazza in New Orleans—I think it was private money that was raised to fund it. It serves no function, but it’s beautiful. It got me thinking of some of the issues in this book, which is, how do you have spaces like that? Someone’s got to be willing to spend money on something that doesn’t yield a return.

Schiller 

That’s exactly right. I wanted to go over a couple of touchpoints about that. You remind me of the political theorist Michael Walzer and his separate spheres theory, which was really important to me in formulating this argument. Walzer talks about spheres of justice, where there are different frameworks for what constitutes justice—there’s not one monolithic definition. I’ve borrowed that framing to say that we can have a just world where we understand that there’s some money that is used for the necessities of survival and the basic needs of a dignified life, and then there’s some money that does not have to follow that rubric, that can follow a much more expansive mandate of what kinds of things it creates and builds. And the other important point, as I think you’re getting at in your In praise of the pointless piece, is that those things actually run up against the totalizing ambitions of neoliberal capitalism in a really important way, creating those spaces that are pointless and don’t serve utilitarian purposes. They actually are sanctuaries that remind us that not everything we do has to be in service towards the struggle for basic rights and justice, that we can and should do things that are much more capacious and imaginative than that. Indeed, I think it’s what makes us human. That’s why the Notre-Dame Cathedral was such a symbol of that.

Robinson 

I was just about to bring this up, actually.

Schiller 

Tell me how you responded to that.

Robinson 

Here’s another example where I think you flip on its head the instinctual Left reaction. So, when Notre-Dame caught fire, instantly, money poured in from all over the world. People love Notre-Dame, and they wanted to restore it, so they got tons and tons of money to fix it up. And of course, numerous people immediately commented that it’s a time of terrible suffering, with people begging for just to pay for their insulin and whatever, but Notre-Dame, the stupid cathedral, gets all this money. As I understand it, you’re saying—and you can clarify whether this is a correct statement of your point—that we want to fix the part where people are deprived of their basic needs so that the area of philanthropy is for when a cathedral burns down.

Schiller 

That’s right. You’ve described it perfectly. This is where Walzer is really handy. This idea of separate spheres is so important. I think the controversy about the money raised for Notre-Dame was spillover from political conflict. A very important piece of context is that Macron in 2017, just two years before the fire at Notre-Dame, came into office and implemented massive tax cuts that largely benefited the wealthy of France, instituted austerity politics, and slashed social welfare spending. There had been protests for months. People might recall the Yellow Vest protests from the working class of France against these economic reforms.

So, there was this massive political contestation. And because there was no resolution to it, it spilled over. Which is to say, if our politicians will not be sympathetic to these demands, then it is our billionaires’ responsibility to take them more seriously. That’s a moral and normative demand of one’s government carried over to wherever the money was: now it’s the private citizens of France who should be ashamed for having pledged all this money for Notre-Dame when clearly they could have pledged it to resolve the social crisis. And it was that transposition that concerned me for a number of reasons. One, again, is the privatization of what are very correct and just political demands, to just say, whatever works. Regardless of the consequences to our political system, we’re just going to find the money wherever it can be found. I certainly understand the pragmatism of it, but I think there’s some terrible unintended consequences of that. And the other, again, is this flattening effect, which is to say, until we resolve these social crises, we can’t possibly make space for the value of a cathedral. The cathedral’s gravitational importance is not just to the wealthy of France but to everyone in France and to many people worldwide. That was so palpable at the moment when it burned. So, to negate this thing that drew people together in such a powerful way, that was such a source of profound connection to something larger—to say it doesn’t matter because our energy should be completely and totally focused on this political struggle and everything is subsumed into that, I thought, no, that’s not right. There’s more to our collective life than this, and we can’t lose that understanding.

Robinson 

One of the central points that comes across in your book is that ordinary people deserve beautiful things. We deserve the palaces for the people; we deserve cathedrals; we deserve museums that everyone can go to for free. The Left has historically called for “bread and roses.” And you say that probably the correct way to think about how we fund stuff is: government for the bread, philanthropy for the roses. So, the state is supposed to take care of making sure that nobody is horribly deprived, and then once we have that foundation, then civil society can pull its resources to build things that don’t serve those basic utilitarian functions.

Schiller 

Absolutely right. And I get this question—you may be gearing to ask it as well—how does this really translate to the here and now? What does this mean for me next Tuesday, when I have to decide where I’m giving my money? To me, the important thing is, as with any sort of visionary, collective struggle, you have to give for the world that you have and for the world that you want to build. We can hold two thoughts at once; we can do two things at once. To me, the most important contribution I can make in this book is to say, not everything is reducible to the very correct and valid urgency of the struggle for economic justice. There are things that complement and preserve humanity’s greatest capacity and are always there for us as reinforcements, as sanctuaries, as exemplars of the vision of what we can all be as a society.

Robinson 

Another point about how we should act in the here and now is that those of us who wish to be philanthropist, in the sense of lovers of humanity, shouldn’t just pursue charitable works but should be part of larger struggles for economic and social justice. And the critique of the Effective Altruists is that it’s depoliticized. This whole idea is that all you have to think about is how rich people ought to spend their money, but instead, you need to be part of campaigns to alter the conditions that are causing you to have to ask this question.

Schiller 

Yes, I have some proposals in here.

Robinson 

You have practical proposals?

Schiller 

Believe it or not, folks, she’s got practical proposals. And I think the central one—this is the one that connects what giving could be, and what circumstances we need to make that possible—is the idea of a giving wage, that we increase our demand from a living wage—which is already barely adequate—to the idea of, what if everyone was paid enough that they could afford to contribute and be a philanthropist at some scale?

Robinson 

I love that. Because yes, one thing that you argue very strongly in this is that philanthropy shouldn’t just be for the rich. Everyone should have extra. Everyone should have enough to give away. I love that contrast between the living and the giving wage because living wage is bare subsistence. That’s a very reasonable demand at a time when it’s impossible to pay your rent on your pay. However, we really ought to raise our expectations and have as a standard that people ought to be able to have enough spare cash to where, when there are some projects like building the next Statue of Liberty—you cite the Statue of Liberty as an example of something that the community of non-wealthy people came together to help support—those sorts of things can happen.

Schiller 

You asked earlier: what should GoFundMe be for? And we have our counterpart right there. We have our early crowdfunding victory right there in the story of the Statue of Liberty. So we have, in our own history, this vision of crowdfunding and of small dollar giving as a genuinely world-building exercise. 

Robinson 

Another thing you do in the book is you look at some of history’s most famous philanthropists, then and now—in the past, Jane Addams and Andrew Carnegie, and in the present, LeBron James and MacKenzie Scott—and you find in each of them problematic aspects. Carnegie wrote this book that essentially argues that it’s fine to make your money however you like, no matter how exploitative and horrible you are, but your job afterward is to serve humanity. You point out that there are lessons from the ways that he did choose to serve humanity, like building wonderful libraries, that we can take. Tell us a little bit about some of the lessons you got from profiling these particular cases.

Schiller 

Something I didn’t write about in the book that is helpful for thinking about why Carnegie’s work was as valuable as I think it was, is that Carnegie built this massive, nationwide network of libraries, and he wanted them to be beautiful and grand structures. You used the phrase palaces for the people—that’s Carnegie’s phrase. He had the leeway to do it that way, and those libraries are still anchors of communal life throughout the United States, and there are some actually globally as well, that bundled together the provision of basic social needs. So, unhoused people can be there for warmth and shelter, for restrooms, and for other social services. Arguably, we overburden our libraries with some of those tasks today, but that’s a story for another time. And they’re these incredibly grand spaces of exploration, discovery, human aspiration, community, and beauty, as you point out.

So, you have this example from Carnegie, and we’re really just talking about the results. How do we judge the results of his giving? I’d say very highly, especially when compared to his counterparts today, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who care not a whit for the earthbound community, for the local population of any scale, but really think only of building space colonies in which, by the way, we would all be enslaved. 

Robinson 

That does seem to be the implication. They don’t state that outright, but every time you hear them describe it, you really get that vibe.

Schiller 

Yes. It’s the ultimate offshoring. That’s obviously the game. By no means does this legitimize or excuse the abuses of workers that are associated with the accumulation, but let’s just narrow the goalposts a little bit and contrast this vision of philanthropy. However oligarchic in its origin, it created a common world, and this version of billionaire philanthropy is going to utterly dissolve the common world and negate the higher gifts and capacities of human beings. So, can we borrow from Carnegie’s example, especially to counter the ambitions of Bezos and Musk and their counterparts, today? That was one.

The concluding example in the book is LeBron James and his counterpart Jane Addams, founder of Hull House. What I loved about those two is that they created institutions—Hull House in Chicago for Jane Addams, and the I PROMISE school and housing community and other network of nonprofits in Akron for LeBron. They really exemplify this ability to both serve functional purposes that are needed at this moment and to really help people cultivate themselves as full human beings. And Addams did that with Hull House by really emphasizing that poor and working-class people need a space for culture, recreation, and community. LeBron does it with this one in particular, which is giving every kid at the I PROMISE school a bike and a helmet, and saying, when I was a kid, having a bike was what made me feel free. Those are LeBron’s words. And you think, boy, feeling free does not really lend itself to quantifiable documentation. It’s not a concrete return on investment kind of thing. If you want kids to feel free, that means you are really doing this because you want them to flourish as people without any oversight, control, or surveillance of how that happens, at least when the bikes are concerned.

Robinson 

Yes. And we can contrast with what we were talking about in the beginning, about the flattening of humanity that comes with seeing people as the poor or the sick in need of alms. What if we thought more? What if we spoke to people about what kinds of things make them feel free, what they want out of life? And it’s not just, please don’t let me die. We don’t want people to starve to death. You want to feed people. But you want the roses, too. Everyone’s entitled to the roses. And it’s important that it’s not just rhetoric but taken seriously. When we say bread and roses—we say it a lot, and it lapses into cliché—you shouldn’t just build a school for kids who don’t have a good school. It should be a beautiful school. It should be a school that’s breathtaking.

Schiller 

Right. Well, the phrase that I use for that is magnificentful. It’s that value of really raising your sights, really raising your game. Yes, magnificence really encapsulates it exactly, like breathtaking and beautiful, and all those things that give us a sense of dignity, a sense of vision, a sense of feeling valued in the world. That’s the thing that philanthropy can do, and we really quite desperately need it to provide that at this time. 

Robinson 

When they hear the term philanthropy, leftists might be turned off by it and think that philanthropy would only exist in a world where there are billionaires. I hope they read your book. If we tax the rich, if we tax all their money away, then philanthropy disappears because we’ve redistributed wealth and solved the problem that philanthropy only exists in a society where some people have too much wealth. But you make the argument that you can tax billionaires out of existence, but because of your idea that ordinary people should be able to endow things with resources, we can imagine a much more equal world that still has philanthropy. A love of humanity, donating to the common projects, and donating time and resources doesn’t have to go away. And in fact, it can achieve its true and more beautiful purpose.

Schiller 

Yes, everyone should read my book! 

Robinson 

I agree!

Schiller 

I am so energized by conversations with my friends and my comrades on the Left because I know that what I’m saying is so counterintuitive. I know that what I’m saying feels like such a potential defense of very aristocratic norms, of legitimizing this power structure that many are fighting against. And it definitely is a delicate threading of things to say we can retain this sensibility, and we can redistribute it in a way that is widespread. And I think the most important thing is, we actually really need to do that because there are so many pressures now that say all of our individual and collective lives are subsumed in the struggle for survival. The living wage is just one expression of this. We are all focused on surviving and being economically productive and sustainable. There’s so much pressure to think in this way, in ways that we don’t even realize. And it’s gotten to us to the extent—to go back to the beginning—that we think everything is a purchase, a for-profit transaction. That’s how deeply these ideas have sedimented in us. And so, more than that, I actually think it’s vital that everyone embrace this idea that no, there is something grander in store for us, and that we want to advocate for it not as the kind of indulgence of the elite, but as a value of everyone.

Robinson 

Amy has not written the book that you necessarily think she has written. It seems like it’s about how to fix philanthropy. You might assume that she has written a guide for wealthy people on how to spend their money differently. But it’s such a delightful surprise throughout, and it will really get you to think. My favorite book in the world is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, and at the end you write about all the wonderful things that are in A Pattern Language. It’s supposed to be an architecture guide, but it’s about how to live the good life. These are the things that we need: the beautiful and the strange.

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

More In: Interviews

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs