Learning to love ‘appalling’ and ‘quease-making’ philanthropists

Today is my first day back at work after a blissful 8 months of maternity leave. I’ll miss hanging out with little Meredith but am also delighted to be back in the wonderful world of philanthropy.

Towards the end of mat leave, this bliss was slightly punctured by coming across yet another anti-philanthropy rant in my newspaper of choice, the Guardian. Columnist Zoe Williams is not a fan of rich people giving their money away to good causes. She writes that philanthropy ‘appals‘ her and that philanthropists maker her feel ‘queasy‘. But the stand-out phrase for me is when she writes: “I object to high-net-worth philanthropy in principle”. What, all of it? Every instance of someone with resources choosing to use it to help others, rather than to help themselves?

I couldn’t resist firing off this letter to the Editor which also questions her assertion that “inequality is a precondition of this kind of lavish spending”. I think of ‘lavish spending’ as being about buying jewels or a massive yacht, rather than education for poor kids, but maybe that’s just me.

The problem with this sort of column is that regular use of words like ‘unpleasant’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘obscene’ to refer to rich donors, impacts on the decisions of the wealthy about whether, and how much, to give away. As Theresa Lloyd’s study of ‘Why Rich People Give’ shows in these¬†quotes from potential donors:

“Why are the media nasty? They don’t do good news. They are snide and they pander to jealousy. The obituaries of philanthropists are nice but during their lifetime journalists dig. There’s nothing to be done” (Lloyd 2004, p.232)

“Reforming the press is a hopeless cause. We won’t be able to change their negative approach. You need to accept from the outset that whatever you do will be rubbished in newspapers” (p.234)

Many Guardian readers will have enjoyed Williams’ rant, because in the UK many people conflate ‘philanthropist’ and ‘tax dodger’, and make assumptions that all fortunes have dubious origins. Tell that to the recipients of Anita Roddick’s massive charitable legacy, who benefited from the wealth created by her ethically-sourced peppermint foot cream.

First day back at work and I’m already drafting plans for my next research project: ‘How can the UK learn to love philanthropists?’.

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