BETH BREEZE: Philantropy is worth defending

Beth Breeze worked as a fundraiser and charity manager for a decade before founding the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent in 2008 where she now leads a team conducting research and teaching courses on philanthropy and fundraising, including an innovative MA Philanthropic Studies taught by distance learning. She has written and co-authored four books: ‘Richer Lives: why rich people give’ (2013), ‘The Logic of Charity: Great Expectations in Hard Times’(2015) and ‘The Philanthropy Reader’ (2016). Her last book ‘The New Fundraisers: who organises generosity in contemporary society?’ won the AFP Skystone Research Partners book prize for 2018. Her next book, ‘In Defence of Philanthropy’ is published in September 2021.

You have done a tremendous amount of research in the field of philantropy. The fact that there is a field of philantropy tells us a great deal about the ways in which philanthropy has changed, becoming an object of inquiry. How and why did you become interested in this field?

I got interested in philanthropy because I was on the receiving end of scholarships during my student days, including some incredibly generous funding that enabled me to attend the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales from age 16 to 18, to spend the Junior year of university at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, and to cover half the fees for my postgraduate degree at the London School of Economics. Receiving so much support from different types of philanthropy – from an individual major donor, a group of ex-pats, and a corporate donor – has made my very grateful and also very curious about why and how private money is used for the benefit of unknown others. 

My first jobs all involved different types of fundraising, from individuals, churches and corporations, which further increased my interest in what prompts some people and organisations to voluntarily support some causes whilst others do not. At that time (the lates 1990s/early 2000s) there was very little useful research available to help fundraising professionals do their job, and there were no relevant Higher Education courses, so I decided to try and help fill that gap by getting a PhD then conducting (hopefully!) useful research, and by developing educational programmes to support those working in the nonproft sector.

One could say that today philantropy is a hot topic, whether it is debating on how big donors or individuals influence decision making processes, or the ways in which philantropy fosters or endangers democracy, or asking ourselves if and how should we donate, any individual, for that matter.  In your research, what were the most surprising findings connected to the perception of philantropy within the public sphere?

One of the main lessons of my research is that we need to avoid making generalisations about philanthropy. When people ask me (as they often do!): “Why do people give?”, I point out that question makes as much sense as asking “Why do people shop?”. Of course, it depends what they are shopping for and in what context: a pint of milk or a private helicopter? Similarly, philanthropic activity covers a very broad range of goods and activities, from funding a lunch club for a few lonely older people, to protecting an endangered species, to searching for a cure for cancer. Give that range of causes, as well as the diversity amongst donors, their various methods and philanthropic goals, and the different role and treatment of philanthropy around the world, it is clear that philanthropy is not a simple phenomenon. Yet people continue to describe and discuss it in simple terms. As your question suggests, some people believe philanthropy is a threat to democratic ways of organising society because they feel it runs counter to agreed-upon ideas about how public decisions should be made and enacted. Yet that view overlooks the reality that democracy can be – and frequently has been – improved by outside pressure, and unfairly contrasts an idealised version of democracy with the messy reality of philanthropy. 

I am concerned about both simplistic criticisms and careless cheerleading, but at the moment those who point out the problems with philanthropy are much louder. There is little pushback against the multiple and interconnecting criticisms of philanthropy being made by academics, nonprofit insiders and populist commentators, so my energy is focused on responding to those criticisms and reminding people that whilst the imperfections of philanthropy are longstanding and well-known, its positive potential – which includes improving communities, improving and saving lives – is worth defending.

As donors, individuals like to donate to the causes that will make them see the difference their support has fostered. You have also published on the notion of unpopular causes arguing that it is a matter of framing differently the causes. However, we are interested in a larger picture. How do you see people donating to the social and political movements? What are the challenges in supporting movements? And how do people and donors negotiate the tension between autonomy of the movement and not agreeing with some aspects of the movements? 

This is a very good question, which helpfully highlights the diversity of things that get funded by private giving and the tensions that often arise between do-ers and donors. It is important to remember the crucial role that private funding has played in enabling activists to successfully win many different campaigns over time, and as a result to change society for the better. We rightly remember and celebrate the activists whose efforts helped to end slavery, gain votes for women, and make society more equal in many different ways. But all those campaigning efforts cost money, so private donors have long been a crucial – if usually invisible partner – paying rent for activists’ offices, travel costs, campaigning materials, hiring halls, paying salaried organisers, and so on. For anyone who is unconvinced of the importance of philanthropy in this regard, I warmly recommend they read a book called Funding Feminism: Monied women, Philanthropy and the Women’s Movement 1870 – 1967’ by Joan Marie Johnson which clearly sets out the crucial role of private gifts in securing suffrage, women’s access to higher education, and the ability to control our reproduction. Yet Johnson also highlights the challenges and tension that your questions refers to: clearly wealthy donors enjoy more advantages and power than some of those they seek to help. Leveraging financial inequality to tackle other kinds of inequality can cause discomfort and resentment, especially when ‘wealthy allies’ lack an understanding of the lived experience, or seek to advance their preferred strategy or leadership. This is why philanthropic support offers both “possibilities and problems”, and our task across the sector is to find ways to improve the practice of philanthropy without undermining its legitimacy by focusing exclusively on its flaws rather than its positive potential.

If we understand philantropy as a way to support social change, what kinds of obligations do we have when we donate?

By definition, philanthropy is voluntary so it is important to remember that some people and organisations choose (rather than are obliged) to give away some of their own resources to try and make things better – according to their own view of what ’better’ looks like. I do not see philanthropy as a viable alternative to well-funded state action, and I have never met a philanthropist who believes that they can or should replace public spending. So the question is what role can private donors play alongside ther other two – much bigger – sectors in society: government and the market.

Most people make charitable donations throughout their lives, but the decision to become a thoughtful, pro-active philanthropist rather than an ad hoc, reactive giver, involves a process of getting organised, choosing a cause area to focus on, learning about the issues, researching what others are doing and who to collaborate with, clarifying what contribution you are best placed to make, deciding what specific philanthropic goals to pursue, making a plan to achieve those goals, evaluating progress and monitoring the changing context to make course corrections as needed. As this long list indicates, being consciously philanthropic and striving to give well, involves a considerable investment of time and energy and potentially a life-long learning curve. 

Compared to those investing for private gain, there is still little accessible and affordable support available to those seeking advice on how best to give, how to maximise the impact of their philanthropy, and how to do so in a way that is aligned with social-, racial- and environmental-justice. This is why those seeking to support social change could also consider supporting the philanthropic infrastructure in their region or country, because a better organised, educated and professionalised philanthropy sector can generate far-reaching benefits for many causes and for a progressive wider society.

Interviewed by Djurdja Trajković.