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#71: What is philanthropy for?
A Q&A with founder, writer, and research fellow Rhodri Davies
Thanks to everyone who reacted to the last issue on corporate purpose and noble cause corruption. I’d been wrestling with half-baked thoughts on the topic for some time so it was both helpful and cathartic to try and articulate them.
We’re continuing on the purpose trail with this week’s Q&A. Our guest is Rhodri Davies, a well-known expert and commentator on philanthropy and civil society issues. Rhodri is the founder and Director of the Why Philanthropy Matters think tank and host of the Philanthropisms podcast. He is also a Pears Research Fellow in the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent and a Philanthropy Expert in Residence at the Pears Foundation.
In March this year, Rhodri released his second book, What is Philanthropy For? It’s part of a new series from Bristol University Press called ‘What Is It For’, which aims to examine the purpose of the most important aspects of our contemporary world—from war and religion to animal rights and the Olympics:
“If we believe the world could be different, if we want it to be better, examining the purpose of what we do – and what is done in our name – is more pressing than ever.”
I’m sure the parallel to recent devastating events is clear.
Over to Rhodri.
Your educational background is in mathematics and philosophy. Tell us how you journeyed towards the world of philanthropy.
My ambition originally was to become an academic philosopher, focusing on the philosophy of mathematics. Although I found the subject matter interesting (and still do!), I started to worry about how removed it was from anything to do with the real world. I was concerned that I would spend the rest of my career talking only to this tiny group of people who cared about questions like "Are numbers an invention or a discovery?" or "What's the ontological basis of set theory?". Interesting, for sure, but pretty niche!
Following a bit of an existential crisis, I decided to leave academia and try to put my research and analysis skills to real-world use. After a few false starts, I landed a job in a think tank, working on a research project about how to foster a culture of philanthropy in the City of London. Having never really thought about philanthropy before, I was suddenly interviewing dozens of senior hedge fund managers and investment bankers about their take on philanthropy. I got hooked on the topic pretty quickly.
To this day, I'm struck by the breadth of questions philanthropy raises. On an individual level, it raises questions about psychology, human nature, cultural background, and theology. On the collective level, it touches politics, economics, and philosophy—how can we, and should we, operate as a society? I've subsequently spent most of my career trying to convince others to find philanthropy similarly interesting!
Philanthropy affects all of us. If we understand it in its original sense as "love of humanity," we are all inclined to be philanthropists—although most of us don't often think of ourselves in those terms.
Your latest book is called What is Philanthropy For? Why is this an important question for us to be interrogating now? What are the key debates?
What Is Philanthropy For? is part of the new ‘What Is It For?’ series from Bristol University Press, which aims to introduce current and future debates on various key topics. I was thrilled that they approached me to write the philanthropy volume (one of the first titles in the series). It’s essentially the question I have been asking myself every day for the last decade. Needless to say, answering it within a tight word count was a great challenge!
The question is important because philanthropy affects all of us. Arguably, it is basic human nature (in most cases, at least) to want to help others. If we understand philanthropy in its original sense as "love of humanity," we are all inclined to be philanthropists—although most of us don't often think of ourselves in those terms.
Suppose we focus on the more common interpretation of "philanthropy" as being about the giving of money by the very wealthy. In that case, this has long played a significant role in shaping the society and the world we live in and continues to do so today. On the one hand, you can see that as a positive thing, perhaps highlighting the capacity of philanthropy to support minoritised groups or to fund innovative new approaches to addressing societal problems. On the other hand, you can raise valid concerns about whether philanthropy exacerbates existing inequalities or undermines democracy by giving those with wealth the ability to influence public debate. Indeed, people have been raising those kinds of concerns ever since philanthropy existed.
In the book, I explore where the boundaries of philanthropy lie and how it relates to other relevant aspects of society: charity, justice, the State, democracy, and the market. I wanted to help readers understand some of the big questions you need to get to grips with to understand the nature and role of philanthropy, their historical lineage, and how they all fit together. Questions like:
Does philanthropy further justice or get in the way of achieving it?
Is philanthropy a potential solution to inequality or just a symptom of it?
Which of society's needs should we look to the State to meet, and which can we more appropriately meet through philanthropy?
What is the relationship between tax and giving?
Does the source of money have a bearing on the legitimacy of efforts to do good through giving it away?
You recently wrote an article exploring the idea that, in an ideal world, there would be no philanthropy. At the end of the piece, you argue that the current and pending impact of AI and automation is cause for us to interrogate the role of philanthropy. Why is that? What would be the desired outcome of these interrogations?
I think AI could have all kinds of profound impacts on philanthropy, as it could on many other aspects of our lives. One frequently discussed implication of AI and automation is whether they will pave the way for a "post-work future" and require us to structure society radically differently (e.g., by implementing some form of basic income). I am interested in what role, if any, philanthropy has in these scenarios. For example:
Would we be in a situation where we radically reduce inequality, and people's welfare needs are entirely met by the State—in which case, could it finally become a reality that there is "no need for charity"?
Or would the basic philanthropic impulse continue to exist but perhaps express itself differently? And what might that look like?
There is a potentially relevant historical precedent in the form of the UK welfare state. When the National Health Service (NHS) was created in 1948, many people thought it spelt the end of charity because the State would now look after people "from cradle to grave." And some people thought this would be a good thing! It didn't pan out like that—philanthropy continued to exist, as did charitable organisations, but they adapted and evolved to meet new needs and fill new niches.
I suspect something similar would happen in a post-work future. While it's impossible to know, it is vital to analyse future scenarios and their potential implications on philanthropy if we want the best chance of being prepared for what's next.
Now for a definitions question. Since I've been writing Pass It On and reading more third-sector media, I've noticed that US publications tend to talk about philanthropy, while UK publications refer primarily to charity. Is there any grounding for this?
Arguing over this distinction has a rich history. So rich, in fact, that I dedicated a chapter in the book to this very topic!
It's not quite as simple as "philanthropy in the US; charity in the UK," but there is a difference in how people use the terms on either side of the Atlantic. Philanthropy is much more widely used (and probably better understood) in the US and is more readily applied to mass market planned giving (as well as big money donations). In the UK, the term tends to have connotations of extreme wealth and often conjures up images of Victorian benefactors bestowing gifts on grand civic buildings. As a result, the UK is probably still more comfortable with the language of charity and charitable giving. That said, a new generation of sports stars like Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings (or YouTube creators like MrBeast) are self-defining as "philanthropists" and thus making the word much more common currency for younger people. It will be interesting to see whether this changes perceptions in the UK over the longer term.
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What, if at all, do you wish the tech sector understood better about the non-profit sector and vice versa?
We sometimes refer to the non-profit sector as the voluntary sector, and I think this causes some confusion. Everyone working in the voluntary sector isn't a volunteer. The majority are highly skilled professionals who happen to work for organisations with governance structures involving voluntary trustees. Many of the voluntary sector challenges are the same as you would find in the private or public sectors.
We should also consider the asymmetry in non-profit and tech sector interactions. Non-profits typically recognise and respect the expertise of tech professionals, but the opposite isn't always true. Sometimes, you get the sense that people in Tech believe they could solve complex and entrenched social issues just as well as non-profits if they chose to do so. At its worst, this manifests in tech solutionism, where companies or individual donors ride roughshod over existing solutions without consideration that "moving fast and breaking things" doesn't work so well when the things in question are people.
Still, we don't want this concern to result in cynicism. Most people I have met working in Tech who want to engage with non-profits are doing it for all the right reasons. They have an intrinsic desire for purpose and want to put their skills to good use. This is where Non-profits might need to remember that we don't have a monopoly on purpose or on wanting to do good in the world. Plenty of people in the private sector are just as motivated. So, we need to find more ways to create meaningful partnerships between the sectors.
Aside from your new book, what other resources would you recommend for those wanting to dig into the nature and history of philanthropy?
English Philanthropy: 1660-1960 by Lord David Owen—provides a clear and thorough narrative across 300 years of philanthropy.
The Foundations: An Anatomy of Philanthropy and Society by Ben Whitaker—written in 1974, the book weaves history, literature, and interviews into a remarkably prescient and incisive take on philanthropy. It's also highly entertaining!
It’s been a heavy couple of weeks. I hope everyone is taking care.