Giving Compass' Take:

• Steve Dubb, writing for Nonprofit Quarterly, critiques billionaire philanthropists, saying that philanthropy can undermine democratic processes. 

• What are the potential ways that donors can address this critique? How do we move forward and align philanthropy with democratic ideals? 

• Read this discussion with Rob Reich and Jeff Raikes on philanthropy, democracy, and policy. 


What if a cadre of superrich individuals tried to become a driving force in America to organize and institutionalize the interests of the citizens of this troubled nation?

So read the blurb for a tongue-in-cheek work of utopian fantasy penned by consumer activist Ralph Nader eight years ago called “Only the super-rich can save us!” Now, life imitates art, as the New York Times features the folks who are “Giving Away Billions as Fast as They Can.”

At one level, it is hard to object to seeing more resources made available for social good. However, as Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust, points out:

This isn’t the government collecting taxes and deciding which social problems it wants to solve through a democratic process. This is a small group of people, who have made way more money than they need, deciding what issues they care about. That affects us all.

Specifically, it can undermine our democratic processes by shifting decision-making from the public to an elite-driven private realm.

Our public process, flawed though it may be, allows for the resolution of different points of view and interests; with private philanthropy, a single person’s voice is amplified by ungodly amounts of money, a phenomenon that NPQ has described before as philanthropic plutocracy.

Joanne Barkan called philanthropic plutocracy a “peculiarly American phenomenon” in which “Multibillionaire philanthropists use their personal wealth, their tax-exempt private foundations, and their high-profile identities as philanthropists to mold public policy to a degree not possible for other citizens.” This, of course, forms part and parcel of a broader political shift in the United States toward oligarchy—defined millennia ago by Aristotle as “rule by the few.”

Read the full article on influence of billionaire philanthropists by Steve Dubb at Nonprofit Quarterly.