In philanthropy (and in general) “the public good” is an interesting concept. Defining the public good is difficult; who’s the public we’re defining? What’s good for those individuals; more government services? Less tax dollars so that individuals can decide what to do with their own money? Does the public good encompass what’s happening in one’s own country, or overseas as well?
The idea of the public good (and providing public good/s) strongly relates to philanthropy. When we donate, we’re choosing our version of fulfilling the public good, and illustrating what’s most important to us. For example, I’m passionate about education and girls’ and women’s causes. When I donate to an organization that focuses on educating and empowering women and girls, I’m choosing what I believe will enhance the public good.
But is that donation fulfilling the utmost public good? In other words, taking a utilitarian view of the concept, would it be better to donate to starving children around the world, in order to enhance their life and provide a way out of poverty for the “most bang for the buck?” Peter Singer highlights this concept of effective altruism in his work. But in the end, even if the data points to this fulfilling the most good, am I fulfilling my own vision of what “good” means?
Wrestling with these concepts are scholars and practitioners of philanthropy. Dr. Ajay Mehrotra, a tax policy expert, discussed the value added tax (VAT), and its history in the U.S. and other countries at a recent talk. He mentioned that other countries implemented the VAT in order to fund the public good, but the U.S. did not implement it in the 1920s, due to the desire to drive private philanthropy as a substitute for public spending.
Now, both arguments for and against the VAT are grounded in what’s best for the “public good.” In this case, policymakers and influential individuals decided what was best. It begs the question though: who’s receiving the benefits? In other words, which public is receiving the most good?
The last seminar of the semester brought together Dr. Michael Moody and Dr. Elizabeth Lynn. Dr. Moody, along with Dr. Robert Payton, penned the famous definition of philanthropy, “voluntary action for the public good.”
During his part of the talk, Dr. Moody addressed the many critiques of philanthropy: diversion of resources, favoring philanthropists’ needs over beneficiaries’ needs, reinforcing the status quo, tainted donors and money, undermining democracy, lack of sufficient attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and lack of urgency or risk aversion, among others. (I would add an unequal power balance as well.)
Toward the end of his list, I questioned the field I work in! How do people who face all these criticisms have the energy to give, receive, research, volunteer, share, learn, grow, etc.? But then Dr. Lynn mentioned the role of moral imagination. How does our definition of the public good help us from doing wrong? Do most of us (not all, re: tainted donors) keep our moral agenda, as Dr. Moody mentioned, in the back of our minds as we commit to philanthropy? Does the special moral status that we ascribe to the field hold philanthropy to a higher standard while we work for the good of others and provide thoughtful critiques of the field?
I don’t think there’s an overarching answer. We all have our own reasons for acting in philanthropic ways, and it differs from person to person. But I think recognizing the benefits AND negatives of philanthropy helps hold it to a higher standard, a frame of mind and discussion where we recognize philanthropy’s pitfalls and shortcomings (of which there are many) but also realize that philanthropy can provide positive impact and a space for change.
These types of questions will only be brought to the surface more as the school welcomes critics of philanthropy this fall to campus, including Edgar Villanueva with his book Decolonizing Wealth and Dr. Rob Reich with Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. Look out for invites to these events soon!
What are your thoughts on the public good, and how do you identify it? Leave a comment below!