Paying the Price: The Philanthropy Paradox

Charitable donations to UK universities passed £1 bn a year for the first time in 2015/16 reported Sally Weale, Guardian Educational Correspondent on 3 May 2017. What not to welcome, even if Oxford and Cambridge remain the biggest winners (46% of new funds and 34% of total donors)?. The total is a new high on the CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) 15 year survey and, with Brexit looming, no doubt a source of joy and relief for Vice Chancellors and Conservative governments alike.

Domine illuminatio mea,
Look favourably on this our prayer.
Let these poor souls, in statu pupillari,
Become not too inquisitive nor starry-
Eyed, nor radical nor witty,
But let them lust for riches in the City;
Wherewith, by covenant or charter,
They may endow their grateful Alma Mater.

From Dreaming Spires PLC, A Millennium Prayer
– Bertie Ramsbottom 2001.

Not everyone has been similarly delighted. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, protested – with many others – “higher education is worth paying for and we remain committed to campaigning for greater public investment… the sector needs stability and that comes via secure public funding, not variable streams. Universities mainly benefitting from the larger donations are the wealthier ones, so the system entrenches inequality”.

Temper their yearnings to be wise
With visionary calls to Enterprise;
And exorcise all ghosts of shame or sin
At ventures of this dubious kind we’re in.
A thousand years on, we commit to Thee
The relaunched Oxford Inc and PLC.


The imminence of an election and the conservative government’s long addiction to austerity financing of universities and their students, should put the issue even higher on the political agenda. For any fuller dependency on ‘philanthropy‘, as a substitute for sustained public investment in critical areas of public need, raises sensitive issues of both politics and morality – already more visibly contentious and threatening in the longer established US culture of intensely politicised, quid-pro-quo ‘philanthropy’.

For, though through its long history, philanthropy has seemed the more benign face of wealth, its reward has never been less than social or moral ‘influence’ for the giver, even when little more was wanted or sought. Now however, with the massive rise in the income and wealth inequalities across so many of our societies, and its obscene concentration in the top percentile of our own and the US, the means for enhanced ‘charitable’ giving certainly exists – but its character and socio-political impacts seem no longer neutral nor unambiguously benign.

The impulse towards generosity and giving is, of course, a welcome social trait in our communities; though, paradoxically, relatively strongest among the lower to middle earners – the poppy-wearers, Red Cross and animal charity givers and volunteers – who fall well outside the more flamboyant parameters of ‘philanthropy’. For that, we mainly have in our collective memories the likes of the Fords, Rockefellers, Rowntrees, Cadburys and others – from a jumbled rich-list of assorted robber-barons and the high-minded. But today’s ‘philanthropy’ propels us into some new, expanding and deeply disconcerting territory.

For the key emerging correlates of today’s higher-profile philanthropy have become: widening economic and social inequalities; lower relative taxation of higher-wealth individuals and corporations; progressive shrinkage of necessary public services and investment; and consequent undermining of what gives state and community their meaning and necessary cohesion.

So, may Academe, old fruitless passions spent,
Embrace this New, Improved Enlightenment;
And may these new-found Customers for Knowledge
Get richer quicker for their Dear Old College.

A Millennium Prayer 2001.

And, as ever, the clearest current indicators of the new philanthropy’s direction of travel emanate from the USA, where it is not unconnected with the recent arrival of a super-rich property tycoon in the President’s chair, flanked by a cabinet of well-endowed aspirants to the Forbes Rich List.

Over the past fifteen years, the number of ‘philanthropic’ foundations in the USA with a billion dollars or more in assets, is estimated to have doubled to more than eighty – helped by the liberal tax reductions allowed under US law for ‘charitable giving’. These tax write-offs, however, mean that each year an estimated further $40 billion is diverted from the public treasuries via such ‘charitable’ largesse. (‘Reimagining Journalism: The Story of the One Percent’ Michael Massing. New York Review. 2015).

Simultaneously, these latterday ‘philanthro-capitalists’ (as some now call them) – progressively characterised by mega-rich hedge-fund managers, private equity tycoons and hi-tech billionaires – tend towards more intrusive involvement and strategic direction of their beholden benefactions. David Callahan, founder and editor of the Inside Philanthropy website writes: “Philanthropy is having as much political influence as campaign contributions but getting nothing like the attention. The imbalance is stunning”.

In an era when, as moral philosopher Michael Sandel has explained, money and the market have become the key social drivers, it is hardly surprising that philanthropy, in this more aggressive form, has been pushing its tentacles into more proactive political and ideological fields from which its excessive riches derive. The more benign ‘philanthropic foundation’ space is being increasingly colonised by richly financed ‘advocacy groups’, pseudo ‘research foundations’ and, most significantly, ‘think tanks’ – dedicated to validating the happy formula they have discovered for perpetuating the good life we have so selflessly granted them.

Their incidence is most noticeable under the current governing philosophies of the UK and USA; for it is there that the inexorable cycle of obscene inequalities of wealth, catalysed by an unbelievably benign triple bonanza of ‘friendly’ tax regimes on mega incomes, escalating assets and subsequent charitable ‘giving’ – maybe best highlights the inherent paradox of a new ‘philanthropy’ which returns more to the ‘giver’ than the receiver; and threatens open democracy on the way.

The Guardian, 21 April 2011

Dear Ralph,

Thank you for your splendid poem ‘Dreaming Spires PLC’ . I particularly liked the latin!

Best Regards,
Simon Jenkins