A recent Washington Post article criticizes the giving of wealthy Americans during the COVID-19 crisis. But their research misunderstands philanthropy.
One problem that reporters who don’t normally cover philanthropy make when they leap into the subject is that they make assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. They don’t know what they don’t know. As a result, they produce pieces that are severely misleading.
That’s the problem with this long Washington Post article by Roxanne Roberts and Will Hobson. They look at the 50 wealthiest people and families in the U.S. and conclude that, with the exception of Bill Gates and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the really rich “have given relatively little” compared to the typical American.
Roberts is a veteran feature writer and Hobson is an investigative reporter specializing in sports. Hobson’s reporting has included exposés of organizations that are nonprofits, but not necessarily 501(c)3’s (for instance, the National Collegiate Athletic Association). But when Roberts and Hobson write about philanthropy, they are nearly clueless.
It makes sense for some megadonors to be interested in supporting COVID-19 funding. The Gates Foundation, for example, has long been interested in supporting vaccine research, and in 2015 gave a prescient TED talk about how America was not prepared for a pandemic. So it makes sense for the Gates Foundation to fund COVID-19 research.
Bloomberg Philanthropies has also long been interested in public health, although they’re more public policy-focused than the Gates Foundation. According to Roberts and Hobson, they’ve given $75 million to develop public health strategies, with the World Health Organization, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors being major recipients of Bloomberg Philanthropies grants.
But in their reporting about other donors, Roberts and Hobson make several minor mistakes and one major one.
They are outraged that some donors told them to mind their own business. The Johnson family, whose wealth comes from Fidelity Investments, told the Post to get lost. “The Fidelity Foundations and the Johnson family,” said Fidelity spokesman Vincent G. Loporchio, “have never sought promotion for their charitable contributions; it is well known to the Boston community that these grants are anonymous.”
“If billionaires do give anonymously, there is no accountability or transparency,” Roberts and Hobson huff. But there is also no danger that the censorious left, looking for people to “cancel,” will start screaming at you. The example of the Cathy family philanthropy and Chick-Fil-A is an illustrative example of why philanthropic anonymity is increasingly desirable.
As another example, they couldn’t get anyone in Warren Buffett’s office to discuss his COVID-19 funding, so they list his contributions at zero. But in 2006 Buffett announced that 80 percent of his wealth would go to the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has three trustees: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett. Shouldn’t the Gates Foundation be recognized as a joint venture between Gates and Buffett? The Post authors overlook this fact and so fail to recognize Buffett’s active involvement to COVID-19 relief.
Moreover, the remaining 20 percent of Buffett’s wealth that didn’t go to the Gates Foundation went to four allied foundations: the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, crated to honor Warren Buffett’s late wife, and three foundations run by Buffett’s children: the Howard A. Buffett Foundation, the Susan A. Buffett Foundation (formerly the Sherwood Foundation), and the NoVo Foundation, run by Peter Buffett. The Post made no attempt to contact any of the four Buffett foundations to check about their COVID-19 funding.
The donors whom Roberts and Hobson completely misrepresent are the Walton family. Sam Walton had four children, with much of his wealth divided between them and their respective foundations. But the primary philanthropic vehicle of the Waltons is the Walton Family Foundation whose board has six members, five of whom are members of the Walton family. While the Walton Family Foundation donated $1.2 billion to construct the Crystal Bridges building, they are primarily interested in education reform.
The Walton Family Foundation has $4.7 billion in assets as of 2018. But for some reason Roberts and Hobson count the spending of the Walmart Foundation, which has donated $25 million. They provide no evidence that the Waltons control Walmart Foundation corporate giving, and this is as bad a blunder as confusing the Ford Foundation with the Ford Motor Company.
GOOD GIVING DURING COVID
Walton Family Foundation president Caryl M. Stern, in a Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, made some very good points about foundation giving during COVID-19.
She says the Walton Family Foundation supported three principles in their funding for COVID-19: “support existing grantees,” “work through expert organizations,” and “enable local responses.” In the Walton Family Foundation’s case, this means giving grantees money with fewer strings, coordinating efforts for their programs in funding elementary and secondary education, and working to help fight poverty in northwestern Arkansas where the foundation is based.
This seems like a sensible strategy to me. The philanthropic needs created by COVID-19 can be divided into two parts: medical philanthropy and poverty fighting. Now, poverty fighting should be a goal of most foundations, but medical research is harder to fund—particularly if a foundation hasn’t done it before. Suddenly entering into the field of funding medical research with no background or expertise is no easy task.
Moreover, the great strength of American philanthropy is its diversity. The Gates and Bloomberg foundations are good at funding medical research and public health, so it makes sense for them to raise their funding in these areas right now. The Walton Family Foundation’s core competency is education funding, so it makes sense for them to be a foundation focused on school reform and helping struggling schools during the COVID-19 crisis.
The lesson of COVID-19 is that foundations should fund programs that play to their strengths—which often do not include medical research.