From the Bookshelf: In Defence of Philanthropy—Beth Breeze
February 28, 2022 | Rebecca Richards
Philanthropy is no stranger to criticism. However, rarely has charitable giving fielded such strong and consistent attacks as it does today. Beth Breeze’s new book, In Defence of Philanthropy, offers an insightful, refreshing take on why giving is worth protecting. She cautions readers that encouraging cynicism about charity may diminish giving rather than drive improvements.
Ms. Breeze directs the Global Challenges Doctoral Centre and the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. Prior to her academic career, she worked in a variety of fundraising roles. Although many texts about philanthropy are written for nonprofit professionals or philanthropists, Ms. Breeze’s range of experience makes her book an accessible must-read for anyone who cares about the dynamics of giving.
She identifies three main critiques of philanthropy, which she terms as “academic,” “insider,” and “populist.” The academic critique asserts that philanthropy is undemocratic—those with wealth have the power to distribute it as they choose with little oversight. Insiders, those who work within philanthropy and nonprofits, claim giving is misdirected, that funds should be distributed based solely on economic need. The populist critique distrusts the motives of philanthropists and suggests that “giving is really taking in disguise.”
Ms. Breeze addresses each critique in its own chapter, explaining the root of the criticism, providing historical context, and articulating a nuanced response. Underlying each critique is the charge that philanthropy insufficiently addresses inequality. This unfairly assumes that the purpose of giving is “to tackle poverty, and inequality, despite there being neither historical precedent nor legal obligation for any type of donor to make this their exclusive philanthropic goal.” Issues of equality have only recently become a target of philanthropic support. Philanthropy has a broad range of goals, many of which extend beyond issues of wealth disparities.
Ms. Breeze acknowledges the valid concerns about institutional giving posed by each critique, but she does not let critics forget philanthropy’s immense accomplishments in developing infrastructure, addressing health issues, and generating social change. “Generalized cynicism” about philanthropy ultimately does more harm than good by disincentivizing giving altogether. The author writes, “Like politics, philanthropy is imperfect, messy, and complex,” but “it is better than a world without philanthropy.”