Today’s Financial Times carries a letter from me , responding to a column they published last weekend, expressing a pessimistic outlook for philanthropy in the recession. So of course I’m momentarily biased. But for as long as I’ve paid attention to these things, I reckon the FT has provided the most extensive and thoughtful coverage of philanthropic issues.
It pains me to say that, because I’m a Guardian girl myself, but my favourite paper lets me down in this respect. They either assume philanthropy is a necessary evil due to an under-funded welfare state or is a plaything of ego-centric millionaires, both views being regularly espoused by star columnist Polly Toynbee. Indeed, in her book ‘Unjust Rewards’ (co-written with David Walker) philanthropy is described as ‘mere ostentation’, ‘a passport to the in-crowd’ and ‘another way of exerting power and control’.
The most jaw-dropping example of negative media coverage also appeared in the Guardian, courtesy of columnist Michelle Hanson who responded to the news that Bill Gates had committed over $30 billion to tackle global health problems, by writing on 28/11/06:
“Bill Gates is giving millions to charity. So? Why not? What else could he possibly do with all his money except coat himself in treacle and roll in banknotes?”
One of the reasons I’m drawn to studying philanthropy is because of this gulf between public opinion and donors’ own account of their actions. In essence, it seems that, whilst philanthropists tend to emphasise the altruistic, selfless and public nature of their acts, the media tend to emphasise the egoistic, self-serving and private benefits of their acts.
But this weekend – which brings news that David Sainsbury is the first Brit to donate £1 billion to good causes – wouldn’t it be nice if both the left-wing and right-wing press could focus on the positives, that people are willing to use their private wealth to fund public goods, and leave the negative stereotypes behind for once?