The Giving Pledge and Unintended Consequences

January 12, 2011 at 6:30 PM

The Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Pablo Eisenberg argues that journalists have failed to look critically at the Gates and Buffett-inspired Giving Pledge and its potential unintended consequences, which he sees as negative.

He levels the familiar criticisms against private philanthropy: the foundations are unaccountable to the public, or to politics; the government won’t be collecting taxes on all that wealth. More interesting is his claim that the gifts could have “serious unintended consequences for our neediest populations and the nonprofit sector.”

We don’t find his argument terribly convincing. He seems to say, because wealthy donors have tended to give most of their money not to nonprofits serving the needy but to “universities and colleges, hospitals and medical schools, and museums and art institutions,” the Giving Pledge billionaires will likely do the same. This will somehow constitute a “dangerous development for American democracy.”

First, while some institutions like Harvard have huge endowments and really need no new donors, on the whole colleges, hospitals, and museums provide a positive good for society and are worthy of philanthropists’ dollars.

Second, while one can’t yet account for all of the sixty or so Giving Pledge billionaires, Gates’s focus on solving world health issues, or Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million for Newark, New Jersey public schools, suggest that these magnates aren’t just erecting edifices so they can hang plaques with their names on them.

Eisenberg is right that journalists tend to treat billionaire donors with kid gloves, and that philanthropy would be better served if they took a more critical look at the projects they undertake. (We recently highlighted a good example here.) However, his own criticisms seem off-base to us.

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Entry filed under: Big Donors.

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