Progress Without Profit: We need to think critically about billionaire philanthropy

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Earlier this month, a notification popped up on my phone with the headline “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are donating $300 million dollars to increase voting efforts.” After reading this headline, it seems logical to applaud billionaires for donating their money to important issues. We might reason that money is money, and it should not matter who it is coming from. 

Like most things in this world, however, it’s not quite that simple. Unmitigated support for mega-philanthropy disregards how billionaires make their money in the first place and also ignores the disproportionate power such philanthropy yields for the upper echelons of society.

The $300 million donation to promote safe and reliable voting processes during this election is the perfect example of the hypocrisy inherent within billionaire philanthropy. 

Zuckerberg’s near $100 billion net worth did not appear out of nowhere, but instead came as a direct result of his position as the co-founder and CEO of Facebook. Despite his apparent support for improving the voting process, Zuckerberg has faced criticism for failing to address misinformation about the upcoming election and for allowing politicians to run false advertisements on Facebook. Zuckerberg donates money to the very problem that he refuses to solve on his own platform. This Catch-22 is not unique to Zuckerberg. 

In 2018, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, pledged $2 billion to fighting homelessness in the United States. Ironically, at the same time as his donation, there were reports of Amazon warehouse workers sleeping outside in tents due to their minimal wages. Additionally, Amazon had recently led the fight against a tax on big businesses in Seattle meant to provide aid to combat the homelessness crisis. 

In his book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” Anand Giridharadas delves deeper into the hypocrisy shown by both Zuckerberg and Bezos, along with many others like them. Uber-wealthy mega-philanthropists, he argues, gain power through this current system, and therefore have no interest in breaking that system. Instead, through philanthropy, they put bandages on problems without contributing to lasting change — always doing more good and never less bad.

Mega-philanthropists also use money to gain influence and power in fields they lack expertise. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who is often lauded for his incredible accomplishments through philanthropy, is not immune to this criticism.

I know this is where there might be a slight pause for some readers, for Gates is often heralded as the example of how billionaires should act. It may be a lot easier to see problems with figures like Bezos but feel conflicted with someone like Gates. 

I am the first to admit that things are not black and white. In the following criticism of Gates, I am not negating some of the accomplishments of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through their international work, The Gates Foundation improved accessibility of modern contraception for women and distributed vaccines for diseases such as malaria, among other key advances. I believe I can praise his work while simultaneously recognizing that mega-philanthropy is problematic. 

In Washington, a referendum on opening public charter schools in the state was rejected by voters in 1996, 2000 and 2004. In 2012, when the referendum returned, Gates put more than $3 million behind it. A broad coalition opposed the ballot measure, but did not have the same financial backing as Gates and the other billionaires that supported the schools. Gates and other philanthropists outspent their opponents 12 to one, and finally managed a victory of 50.69% in favor and 49.31% opposed. 

In 2015, the Washington Supreme Court deemed the new charter school law unconstitutional. Charter activists funded by Gates responded by creating a PAC that channeled money to legislators willing to vote for a modified law. In 2018, the Washington Supreme Court finally ruled charter schools constitutional.

In other words, despite citizens of Washington resoundingly voting against charter schools multiple times, Gates, simply because of his money, was able to push forward his opinion on the issue at the expense of others. The ability for mega-philanthropy to amplify the voice of a handful of people, at seeming odds with the democratic process, raises concerns, especially when considering that having an abundance of money does not make a person an expert in education policy. 

I am not trying to argue we should stop donating to nonprofits. The real issue arises when billionaires performatively donate hundreds of millions to a problem that they have a hand in causing. Or when billionaires, under the guise of philanthropy, exert unmatched power and control over complicated, nuanced issues.

If we by and large agree with a billionaire’s causes, there might be less hesitation in giving them power and influence over the direction of our society. But what happens when a billionaire uses his or her resources to steer the country in ways the majority doesn’t agree with?

The next time we see a headline about a billionaire who donated millions of dollars to a cause, it is important to think about the impact and intention of the donation in a critical context before offering unequivocal praise. Not to mention, we should think long and hard about whether we want to abdicate the democratic process to a handful of individuals with the monetary resources to shape the world, and our country, specifically, as they see fit.

Sophie Roppe is a junior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.