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Public displays of gratitude for philanthropic donations are everywhere – names are listed on the sides of buildings, on bricks outlining walkways, on pews or stained glass windows, in Youtube credits or tweets, or in ranked lists (á la US News & World Report’s annual College Rankings). These public displays of thanks, while serving the primary purpose of genuinely appreciating a person’s generosity, may also have the unintended effect of encouraging others to donate to similar causes, organizations, or philanthropic endeavors. It is important to note, however, that donating in order to receive such praise is neither a virtuous nor selfless aim by the philanthropist; regardless, these displays seem to foster more positive benefits than negative consequences.

What about public displays naming those who do not give? Inside Philanthropy’s list of tech leaders is the latest case of philanthroshaming.

Responding to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the 50 largest donors, Inside Philanthropy decided to develop a new formula; while the Chronicle’s list merely ranks “amount,” IP’s list measured “relative generosity,” defined as “looking at what percentage of their wealth a person has given away.” In addition to this simple formula, they also account for factors such as the philanthropists’ ages, as well as the age of their wealth. The list ranks the twelve most generous Tech Leaders, praising people like Tim Gill, Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, and, topping the list, Cisco’s Leonard Bosack and Sandy Lerner.

However, their list went on to include the six of the “least generous.” After acknowledging that their methodology could not account for anonymous donations or those putting off philanthropy until later, IP argues:

 Deep down, though, our bias is to believe that super wealthy who have done very little philanthropy have not given big because, well, they just don’t care enough about the world’s problems to do something useful with their fortunes.

After launching this significant blow, the article lists Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, and Bebo’s Michael Birch as the tech industry’s least generous.

In addition to IP’s self-confessed methodological weakness, this type of philanthroshaming is largely inappropriate.

First, it is their money. Whether or not they want to give to philanthropy is their choice. Philanthropy is (etymologically and morally) rooted in love, which by necessity incorporates one’s will. If these wealthy individuals were required to give (socially, economically, or politically), the philanthropic organizations may materially benefit, but the entire process would cease to be philanthropic.

Second, as admitted by the IP piece, we have no idea what these individuals intend to do later in life, or what they intend to do with their fortune after their time on earth is over (with the exception of Larry Page, of course). All six of these people are very young – what is to say that they won’t wholly dedicate their lives to philanthropy following the example of someone like Bill Gates?

Third, lists like this may radically disincentivize people from donating to good causes. While I doubt Jeff Bezos will have his feelings hurt by landing on this list, it does not particularly help the cause of encouraging him to donate. Insulting a person’s financial decisions is generally not an effective means to their wallet (how many pre-teens insult their dad’s tie before asking for twenty bucks?).

Instead of shaming these individuals, the philanthropic community should be cultivating a culture that motivates these individuals to donate. Instead of tearing down these individuals with problem-ridden methods, we should patiently look forward to their decisions. Instead, we should continue to celebrate those who have shaped the philanthropic community with their generosity – generosity of money, as well as time.

2 thoughts on “The inappropriateness of philanthroshaming”

  1. Hcat says:

    I like Philanthropy because I want them to have the money. A tax deduction is nice, but in would do it anyway.

  2. I like Philanthropy because it is a tax deductible opportunity. Instead of my giving my money to Uncle Sam and he throws it down some rate hole or supports his friend’s business with tax dollars like Selindra. I can allocate what would have been wasted tax dollars and use it to influence Social Change that I consider important to me. And it moves me from being a passive citizen to an active participant to directly influence society as to what is important to me.

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