Billionaires donating to worthy causes might seem like a good idea, but it has at least two major flaws.
The first flaw is that billionaires are billionaires because they hoard billions of dollars. They get it from exploiting the labour of the workers in the companies they own by paying them less than they sell their products and services for and splitting what’s left over. They get it from exploiting the need for housing of those who rent from the housing stock they own.
Or they get it from activities that depend on labour and housing exploitation, such as stock market investing, inheritance, and so on.
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When billionaires donate money, they never donate all their wealth; they only ever donate part of it. Donating a portion of their money to certain causes allows them to give back only a portion of the money they’ve been hoarding from their workers and renters.
Philanthropy allows billionaires to keep taking money from their workers and renters, thus perpetuating the causes their donations are meant to help.
Billionaires give to food banks while their employees get food from food banks. Billionaires give to hospitals while their employees can’t afford health care. Billionaires give to homeless shelters while their employees can’t afford to buy their own home.
This idea is illustrated perfectly in the TV show Undercover Boss, where the CEO of a large company takes on a disguise then infiltrates the ranks to see what the workers see. The CEO finds out about the single mother living out of her car or the university student about to drop out because it’s too expensive. Then at the end of the show, the CEO gives these select employees a lump sum of money to fix their problems, all while ignoring the fact that they’re in those situations explicitly because they don’t make enough money every month.
The second flaw in billionaires donating to worthy causes is it allows billionaires to exploit the power that comes from the wealth they hold.
Billionaires choose where they donate their money. Who they choose has nothing to do with whether the cause is objectively or inherently in more need of the funding. Who they choose is entirely based on their own subjective sense of morality. They choose to donate to the cause because they find the cause attractive, whether morally or whether it maximizes their socially responsible marketing.
Take Sue Desmond-Hellmann, for example. She’s the CEO of the Gates Foundation. She once stated, “We are big believers in metrics, but we are also realists who know that some things, like reducing poverty, are difficult to measure precisely, especially in the short term.”
There is no matrix developed and implemented by a democratically elected body to evaluate and select the causes. There is no publicly accountable institution overseeing the equitable reallocation of wealth so that it maximizes the benefit of the recipient rather than the altruism of the donor.
Each time a billionaire chooses one—or even a handful—cause to donate their billions of dollars to, it means other causes lose out on that redistributed wealth. It creates an environment of inequity within the nonprofit community. Polio eradication becomes more important than suicide prevention of trans youth. Free internet access in libraries becomes more important than preventing black kids from being shot by cops.
And so the things that are the most pervasive go ignored. Food banks are easy to donate to, but stocking up their shelves doesn’t really stop people from becoming poor and needing to use the food bank. It’s easy to donate computers to an inner city community centre, but it doesn’t really stop people from being targeted by police just because of where they live or what they look like.
The world would be better off if there were no billionaires. Workers would have higher paycheques. Rent would be cheaper. Even the environment would be in better shape.
Someone recently asked me if I’d rather there be no philanthropy.
I’d rather there be no philanthropy if it meant that there were no billionaires, and that the money they’re hoarding ended up in the hands of more people, lifting more people out of poverty, improving education and health care, creating more jobs, and improving life quality.