The Billionaire Philanthropist: The Privilege of Giving Back
Late in 2021, there were two significant discussions concerning billionaire philanthropy circles. The first happened with Elon Musk, who essentially trolled the United Nations' World Food Programme, claiming he would sell billions in Tesla stock if he only had a plan to feed the world's hungry. The UN replied with an executive summary of its strategy for using the money if he were to give it. Ultimately Musk declined to give anything since he had zero confidence in how his billions would get deployed by the UN.
I can assure you that we have the systems in place for transparency and open source accounting. Your team can review and work with us to be totally confident of such.
— Cindy McCain (@WFPChief) October 31, 2021
The second incident happened with MacKenzie Scott. Although it was easy to immediately take sides on social media with Musk, in this case, many people applauded Scott's generosity in the past and her humble spirit in giving away her fortune during her lifetime. However, when she gave away her latest tranche of billions, she was criticized. You see, even people that could seem extraordinary eventually get pilloried on social media.
When she announced the $8.5 billion grants, industry critics immediately called her out on her presumed lack of transparency because she didn't disclose which groups received the grants or the amount. Suddenly, it was the outrage of the moment in the industry. Ultimately, Scott announced that she would create a database for the sake of transparency.
Here’s the thing, the 990 tax forms would have satisfied the issue of transparency. So, why do the so-called industry professionals pressure her to create a philanthropic structure (e.g., a foundation or a database)? What happened to the quaint idea that one gives quietly? The same people who punish Scott for her so-called lack of transparency are the same people who likely don't like when billionaires emblazon their names on buildings. You can't have it both ways. Why shouldn't billionaires get afforded the right of donor privacy if the 990s would have taken care of the transparency issue?
The Billionaire Class and Its Members’ Money
In the world today, there are more than 2,700 billionaires. That’s a lot of people with a lot of money. As a result, there's a lot of chatter about what billionaires should do with their money. While many people prefer to think of billionaires and the wealthy as selfish people, the reality is that many of them are very good people. Many donate a significant portion of their money to philanthropic and charitable organizations.
I’m fortunate to have had many conversations with billionaire donors who believe in making the world a better place. Some, like Musk, are doing it not through philanthropy but by creating innovations. As we know, Musk is developing the infrastructure for the future with clean-energy vehicles. So, does that mean that Musk provides the world with no value since he doesn't want to give any money to the UN’s World Food Programme? Others, like Scott, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, are more structured and traditionally philanthropic with their giving (despite the uproar of Scott's so-called lack of transparency).
The Minds of Wealthy People and Billionaires
Giving back is one of the most important things someone can do to contribute to their community and make a difference in other people's lives. Still, it's become a bit of a sport to bash on wealthy people and billionaires. The reality is that they aren't much different than the rest of us.
Also, it’s easy for many of us to try to ignore the fact that we're born into privilege in the United States. Think of it this way the next time you're getting into a self-righteous debate on social media. Right now, people on this planet are dying because they don't have access to water or food — or have too little of it. Children are dying needlessly in this world because they don't have access to proper medical care.
The chances are that you have food, shelter and medicine. And if you have the time to read this post, you likely live a privileged life (though not necessarily easy) in comparison to someone else in, for instance, a developing country. In other words, all of us need to take a step outside of our bubbles to look at philanthropy and giving broadly.
From the Billionaires to the Community
The idea of philanthropy originated in Ancient Greece with the word “philanthrōpía.” The meaning is straightforward — "love of humanity." The definition doesn't state how people have to do philanthropy. In other words, it doesn’t speak to bettering humanity through nonprofit donations. It doesn’t mention having to create foundations to support charitable needs.
Nonprofits and the philanthropic sector as we know it in the U.S. started with Ben Franklin. And, if you know your history, you realize that charitable tax deductions were created because the U.S. wanted to introduce the income tax and needed to incentivize people (i.e. the Robber Barons) to balance the tax with a deduction (e.g., charitable giving).
Now, let’s return to Elon Musk, the billionaire so many love to hate, along with Zuckerberg and maybe every billionaire. Ask yourself this question: Is Musk a philanthropist? He's been called a troll philanthropist and a bunch of other choice names, but isn't what he's doing with Tesla good for society, or is it just any giving that he (or any billionaire) gives to a typical nonprofit structure? I think the idea of philanthropy goes beyond 20th-century, tax-incentivized structures. In other words, good business (e.g., B-Corps, social enterprises, etc.) are philanthropic.
Paul D’Alessandro, J.D., CFRE, is a vice president at Innovest Portfolio Solutions. He is also the founder of High Impact Nonprofit Advisors (HNA), and D’Alessandro Inc. (DAI), which is a fundraising and strategic management consulting company. With more than 30 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, he’s the author of “The Future of Fundraising: How Philanthropy’s Future is Here with Donors Dictating the Terms.”
He has worked with hundreds of nonprofits to raise more than $1 billion dollars for his clients in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, as a nonprofit and business expert — who is also a practicing attorney — Paul has worked with high-level global philanthropists, vetting and negotiating their strategic gifts to charitable causes. Paul understands that today’s environment requires innovation and fresh thinking, which is why he launched HNA to train and coach leaders who want to make a difference in the world.