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Making money work for others

24 March 2017

Continuing our Lent series on aspects of money, Matthew Bishop explores the links between philanthropy and faith

Photo Researchers, Inc/Alamy

Benefactor: Andrew Carnegie is shown scattering money in this 1903 cartoon from Judge

Benefactor: Andrew Carnegie is shown scattering money in this 1903 cartoon from Judge

ASK Bill Gates if his philanthropy is driven by faith, and he will tell you, unequivocally: “I am not religiously motivated.” As the co-founder of Microsoft, currently top of the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, and someone who has given away tens of billions of dollars to fight poverty and disease, he has put his faith in the power of technology, money, and himself, and the talented people that he employs, to move mountains.

Yet he is quick to acknowledge being heavily influenced in his giving by his parents, who were involved in their local Congre­gational church and community charities. His wife, and partner in giving, Melinda, is a devout Roman Ca­­tholic, albeit a re­­bel­­lious one: her decision a few years ago pub­­licly to challenge RC teach­ing on contraception and abor­tion, after seeing the harm it had done ­­­­­­— especially to women — in some of the world’s poorest places, seems to have given extra en­­ergy and purpose to her philan­thropy.


A SIMILAR picture emerges when you read the letters written by signat­ories to the Giving Pledge, created by the Gateses with their fellow philan­thropic tycoon, Warren Buffett. In these public pro­mises to give away at least half their wealth by the time they die, these billion­aire phil­an­thropists rarely attribute their giving to God, or religious faith.

Rare exceptions are Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa, a Zim­babwean couple who made their fortune in mobile tele­­coms. Their giving, they write, is to fulfil the teach­ing of St Paul that “I have shown you in every way, by labour­ing like this, that you must support the weak. And re­­member the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Most of the letters refer, instead, to a sense of gratitude for how wealthy their authors have become; a desire to give back; recognition that they have far more money than they could ever need, and that you can’t take it with you when you go; and a belief in their ability to make the world a better place. As the entre­­preneur Sir Richard Branson writes: “‘Stuff’ really is not what brings happiness. Family, friends, good health and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive dif­­ference are what really matters.”

For the supermarket tycoon David Sainsbury and his family, “We do not believe that spending any more money on ourselves or our family would add anything to our happiness. However, using it to support social progress we have found deeply fulfilling.”

Of course, what some of these super-rich claim is their motiva­tion may not be the real driver of their philanthropy. Arguably, the Gateses and Mr Buffett have set the new gold standard for what is expected of the modern billionaire by his or her peers. A big mansion or big yacht does not get you a seat at the head table; a big gift might.

No doubt, some of the billionaire signatories of the Giving Pledge do not give a damn about the rest of humanity, but care very much about being part of the Buffett and Gates club. And significant philanthropy is still a minority pursuit among the world’s super-rich, plenty of whom seem to take Donald Trump’s lipstick-on-a-pig approach to char­ity (give as much as is needed to polish the personal brand, and not a penny more). There are 1753 people on the Forbes billionaires list, and ­— while there are some mega-philanthropists who have chosen not to sign it — only 158 have taken the Giving Pledge.


IF THERE is a Bible for today’s generation of mega-donors, it is more likely to be The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie than the real thing.

Carnegie, an Amer­ican steel ty­­coon from a long line of Ulster Protestants, was strongly in­­fluenced by social Darwinism; his tome, writ­ten in 1889, argued that it was the responsibility of society’s economic winners to use those same talents that had enabled them to succeed to help the less successful. Giving should be done while the donor was still alive, and should use up the giver’s fortune during his or her life. Or, as he put it, “the man who dies rich dies thus disgraced.”

Like many of today’s wealthy do­­nors, he believed that the talents of the wealthy were desperately needed to improve the impact of giving, re­­garding most charity as utterly in­­effective, “unwisely spent”, and “in­­dis­criminate”.

Above everything else, the defin­ing feature of today’s leading phil­an­thropists ­— in terms of how they de­scribe themselves — is the desire to be effective in their philanthropy (rather than believing that giving is inherently good for its own sake), combined with a belief that the talents that helped them to make money will work equally well when giving it away.


WHILE earlier generations of phil­­anthropists often turned to phil­anthropy out of guilt at how they had become rich, today’s typ­ically are proud of their business life, and see giving as a natural parallel to it: all part of a holistic approach to life. They are prac­titioners of what I call “philanthro­capitalism”.

In a book of that name, summing up our con­clusions from dozens of interviews, Michael Green and I wrote that “as these philanthro­capitalists talk about what motivates them, the same themes come up time and again: they have the re­­sources; the problem needs to be fixed; they know how to fix prob­lems, for that is what they do all day in business.”

This is reflected in talk about large-scale solutions and an obses­­sion with measuring out­comes, which is, on balance, a good thing. Less positively, it can also lead to misplaced arrogance in dealing with others who are engaged on similar causes, and to unhelpful culture clashes. After all, it is often far harder to translate business skills to the task of improving the world than many philanthrocapitalists be­­­lieve.

There have been some spec­­tacular failures. In 2010, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $100 million in 2010 to improve schools in the troubled city of Newark, New Jersey, but the ways in which the money was used turned out to generate no notice­­able benefit. Still, as they say in Silicon Valley, failure is a great learn­­ing experience.

The couple, who have signed the Giving Pledge, seem to have thought hard about what happened to their money in Newark, as they set about putting the rest of their $45-billion fortune to work on good causes.


WHATEVER part personal reli­gious faith plays in the phil­anthropy of individuals, there are some strong grounds for thinking that it has been shaped by growing up in cul­tures built on religious teachings, just as Mr Gates was influ­enced by grow­­ing up in a church­going family with strong charitable habits.

Among academics who study phil­­anthropy, there are some lively debates about whether the dom­­inant Protestant traditions of the United States and Britain, with their greater individualism, are es­­pecially supportive of phil­anthropy by the successful, in contrast with Catholicism-dom­inated Continental Europe and Latin America. There is also a strong culture of philanthropy in the Jewish community.

The main reason that US giving is so much higher (around two per cent of GDP) than other coun­tries (where it is typically less than one per cent) is that so much money is donated to churches and temples. Strikingly, some of the most prom­in­ent Jewish and Christian phil­anthropists who directly link their giving to their religious faith focus on building up what they view as the “classic” interpretations of their reli­gion. A great deal of American Jew­ish phil­­anthropy, for example, has sought to strengthen Orthodox Jewry in Israel.

Likewise, some American Evan­­gel­ical philanthropists are support­ing churches in Africa that take a hard line on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, in the hope of achieving better results in the culture wars over there than they have had at home.

THE most positive aspect of this current boom in philanthropy, for me, is that it is revealing a desire for a purpose deeper than making money. Mr Gates says that he has never been so happy or fulfilled. This is what theories such as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” would predict: as the basics of life (food, shelter, etc.) are taken care of, we turn our attention to the more meaningful stuff.

Recent evidence from neuro­science shows that we are physically hard-wired to find fulfilment in giving, which can generate the same emotionally positive chemical reac­­tions in our brains as dancing or sex. These experiences are not confined to the rich, but are available to everyone — at least to some extent.

That, I think, explains the en­thu­siasm for the #givingtuesday cam­­­paign, a global celebration of giving which I and others co-founded in 2013 with Henry Timms of 92Y in New York (he is the English, Angli­can director of the leading Jewish community centre in the US). Mil­lions of people are redis­covering the joy of giving, and love having an opportunity to celebrate and share this discovery with their friends and families on Facebook, Twitter, In­­sta­­gram, and other social media. In doing so, they are inject­ing posit­iv­ity and purpose into what can seem a negative, hate-filled cyberspace.

Yet, interestingly, — like the Giving Pledge — #givingtuesday is flying in the face of another reli­gious trad­­ition in philanthropy: that giving is best done secretly. Such is the selfishness of our age that talk­ing about your giving is no longer a way to show off how wealthy you are, but, instead, a way to inspire others — by sharing your passion, and showing how giving really can make a difference.


Matthew Bishop is a senior editor at The Economist Group, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How giving can save the world (Bloomsbury, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)), and a co­­founder of the #givingtuesday cam­­paign.

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