lev radin/shutterstock
lev radin/shutterstock

It was the billionaire news of July. Space-racing tycoons: a drama of vaunting ambitions and phallic symbolism culminating with a back-on-Earth press conference by the biggest billionaire of them all, clad in a jumpsuit and a cowboy hat.

And yet, Jeff Bezos didn’t exactly return to Earth. His 10-minute space flight coincided with the release of $400 million to charity—half to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and $100 million apiece to Van Jones and José Andrés to do with what they will. It’s a sum that more than exceeds the yearly grantmaking of all but the heftiest foundations, and one gets the sense that Bezos gave it away on a whim. It’s just one-500th of his fortune, after all.

All told, the “billionaire space race” and its associated pageantry turned out to be a public relations misstep, adding to a rising tide of frustration with the wealthiest among us, regardless of flashy philanthropic announcements that may have earned them accolades in a different era. Critics of plutocracy increasingly deride the concept of a “good billionaire” as a contradiction in terms, a facade poorly concealing structural failings that have led to an objectively ridiculous reality: Several dozen Americans control more wealth than over 100 million others (and yes, that links to a Bloomberg article).

The billionaires’ PR problem hasn’t been helped by continuing tumult over in Gatesland. If even this era’s most celebrated philanthropist can’t avoid a fall from grace, the rest of today’s billionaire mega-donors are surely headed toward supervillain status.

One bright spot in all of this—according to some—comes in the form of MacKenzie Scott’s $8.5 billion and counting in rapid charitable giving, which has flipped the script on billionaire giving and made the previously vaunted Gates model appear plodding and patrician.

Nevertheless, even Scott isn’t without her critics. If the refrain is “no billionaire is a good billionaire,” even she has something to answer for, as the public grapples with how we should feel about a seemingly benevolent representative from the obscenely wealthy class. Unfortunately, philanthropic giving itself, and even grantees, tend to find themselves unfairly caught in the crossfire in the “good billionaire” debate, but just as important are the very real concerns it surfaces about how the public perceives the philanthropic and nonprofit sector.

The next “good billionaire?”

One big salvo came early in July from The Nation in a piece authored by investigative journalist Tim Schwab. His target was Scott, whom he believes is well in the running to succeed Bill Gates as America’s anointed “good billionaire” now that the shine is officially off Gates’ halo.

It should be noted that Schwab has played no small role in Gates’ dethronement, with incisive reporting on how the world’s biggest foundation has played fast and loose with the tremendous power that comes with a $50 billion pile. And now he seems poised to train his sights on Scott.

Schwab accurately calls out Scott for an almost complete lack of transparency in her giving process. For instance, he writes, Scott has been mum on the details around “the powerful and opaque role that professional consultants play in guiding how her vast wealth is distributed.”

Schwab also rightly points out that Scott’s massive giving expands her own influence—how could it not?—and goes on to argue that the basis of her wealth, Amazon, operates in a way that contradicts her equity-oriented philanthropic mission. On top of that, he alludes to the fact that she benefits from a federal taxation regime that goes light on Scott and the rest of the ultra-rich.

All of those are valid points, and ones we’ve attempted to raise in our own coverage. But Schwab’s piece also falls short in some ways, particularly in his blithe condemnation of Scott’s beneficiaries—in all their variety—as one homogenous, almost incestuous “philanthropy-industrial complex.”

While there is some truth in the idea that by supporting philanthrosphere organizations (in her third round of gifts in particular), Scott is expanding the power of “big philanthropy,” this blanket characterization ignores some real diversity in the stances and missions of these groups.

What about, say, Scott’s support for organizations like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which has spent years crying out in the wilderness for equity-forward and even power-relinquishing forms of philanthropy? And her support for the Neighborhood Funders Group and CHANGE Philanthropy? Anyone in or around philanthropy knows those are some of the most progressive sector groups out there, hardly entrenched in the wealthy power structures under attack.

It doesn’t end there. Scott has given money to pretty much all the racial-justice-oriented philanthropic affinity groups—including ABFE, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Native Americans in Philanthropy and Hispanics in Philanthropy—as well as places like the Women’s Funding Network, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and Borealis Philanthropy’s Racial Equity in Philanthropy Fund.

Whether or not we consider these groups part of “big philanthropy,” they’re pretty much all advocating for substantial changes to how power is wielded in the sector. And that’s not even getting into all the women- and BIPOC-led grassroots groups, historically Black colleges and universities, and other vastly under-resourced groups Scott has backed.

Scott is an outlier, for certain, but having covered the sector for more than a few years now, we routinely observe subversive, even radical acts of philanthropic giving, right alongside the most cynical examples of heavy-handed power-wielding.

The power of perception

If we accept that giving like Scott’s can indeed challenge power rather than buttress it, what, then, gives critiques like Schwab’s such power? It’s less the fact that these broadsides are grounded in a full appraisal of how philanthropy operates, and more that they’re based on how philanthropy is perceived. And that’s often a less-than-pretty picture.

Compared with the reams of data collected on donor behavior, we still don’t have a lot of great quantitative insight into how the general public perceives charitable givers and the nonprofit sector. But I’d argue that a large proportion of casual observers view philanthropy as nothing less than a tax avoidance and public relations mechanism for the elite, one that produces, at best, a few good side effects along the way.

Many readers will strenuously object to that characterization, but it doesn’t change the fact that criticism like Schwab’s draws heavily on that narrative, painting a picture of bloated nonprofits and highly paid consultants offering legitimacy and moral cover in exchange for a cut of the capitalists’ haul. This is a real problem for the nonprofit sector, and one that will only get worse as the public grows increasingly angry at the antics of the Bezoses and Bransons of the world.

This notion of a “philanthropy-industrial complex” isn’t groundless—there are many cases of entrenched, well-heeled NGOs that wouldn’t dare challenge the economic systems that line their pockets. But when it’s a charge leveled at the entire sector, it does an immense disservice to the universe of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, often led by women and people of color, working not only to help those in need, but to shift the very systems that produced such an inequitable status quo.

We write about those groups almost daily, but more to the point, we cover who’s funding them—funding that sometimes comes with the express intention of questioning or even breaking down inequitable systems of accumulation. Though her giving is far from perfect, Scott is quickly emerging as a donor with an eye toward those goals. And philanthropy’s progressive precincts are full of additional examples.

Given progressives’ political views, there will always be an uneasy alliance between activists on the ground and the wealthy liberal donors. It’s a problem that doesn’t bother the conservative nonprofit world so much, and it’s a strategic risk for progressives, who stand to alienate both their ideological base and their funder base. I couldn’t help but notice that critiques like Schwab’s have been received with some appreciation by conservatives, who are no doubt worried that Scott is looking like a worthy successor for Soros, never mind Gates.

No easy answers

In the end, billionaire philanthropy will always be a moral grey space, loaded with contradiction and ambivalence. Whether it’s the size of their fortunes, how their wealth was accumulated, or how little they’re contributing to the public coffers, there are plenty of valid ways to criticize the richest among us. But even if these fortunes shouldn’t exist, the fact is that they do, and something must be done with them. Yes, philanthropy often serves as a PR function for industry moguls, but it can also serve as a release valve, or even a weapon against structural inequities.

It’s actually kind of surprising, given the ongoing billionaire backlash, that public sentiment hasn’t turned against professional philanthropy as much as it could. A wave of populist anger directed at the foundation world is something we’ve been speculating about for some time, but so far, it hasn’t really materialized. If anything, legislators and the judiciary seem content to continue treating the charitable sector with kid gloves.

Poking fun at Bezos for his orbital escapades is fun and all, but I see far less attention being paid to the erosion of transparency and accountability in the sector as DAFs and other opaque giving methods gain momentum. Public-facing billionaire gifts might serve a PR function, sure, but what about anonymous giving to pull the levers of policy? Is that more or less outrageous?

There are no easy answers to all of this, and historians will no doubt be debating the impact of today’s top billionaire donors long after we’re gone. I will say, though, that I think most of us can agree Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin engineers should reconsider the visual silhouette of their spacecraft.