Guruncu/shutterstock

Guruncu/shutterstock

In the two years before COVID-19 appeared in the U.S., philanthropy was facing growing criticism. Billionaire mega-givers were accused of subverting democracy by using private wealth to influence public life and divert attention from their misdeeds. Donor-advised funds came under fire for warehousing tax-exempt wealth. Foundations faced critiques for top-down grantmaking, a lack of diversity, and an unwillingness to align the endowment investments with their mission. Even the fairness of the charitable tax deduction itself was called into question. 

These criticisms have channeled larger tides in American life. Since the 2008 financial crisis, populism has been rising—with the right attacking elite institutions like the media, universities, and science; and the left raising the alarm about big corporations and billionaires, while spotlighting deep racial inequities in U.S. society. The new populism, in turn, followed decades of falling public trust in nearly all institutions in U.S. society, starting in the 1970s. 

In this environment, it was only a matter of time before philanthropy—a sector that’s a byproduct of concentrated wealth and piloted by a largely white professional managerial class—found itself facing a rising chorus of criticism. That moment finally arrived in the past year or so. But will it now evaporate as quickly as it came? Or, in the wake of coronavirus, will philanthropy come under even stronger attack?

I could see things go either way. 

Right now, communities across the United States are being reminded of philanthropy’s vital role as foundations and major donors scramble to provide relief. As of last week, over 100 COVID-19 funds had been set up At the same time, many foundations—from Gates downward—have stepped up with major commitments. And, even more striking, dozens of funders have come together in a pledge to change their grantmaking to give nonprofits much more leeway in how funds are used—something that foundation critics have long demanded.

Some billionaire donors have also announced emergency commitments, although it’s too early to say how widespread these pledges are or how far they go. (We’re reporting an article on this now.) 

Even the biggest cheerleaders of philanthropy aren’t suggesting that foundations and mega-givers can save America from COVID-19. But with government clearly overwhelmed by the pandemic—after a decades-long push by the right and its funders to downsize the public sector—this crisis is tailor-made for a charitable sector that has the resources and nimbleness to fill key gaps in an urgent emergency response. And, so far, there are signs that philanthropy is rising to the moment. 

Yet any sense that foundations and the wealthy are doing enough could vanish could quickly in the weeks and months ahead. 

As the pandemic worsens and, later, a full-scale economic depression hits, whatever charitable relief that’s being provided—however unprecedented it may be—will feel paltry relative to mounting human needs. And so, inevitably, foundations and the wealthy will face growing calls to do more, much more. 

Calls are already growing for institutional grantmakers and donor-advised funds to more quickly disperse the billions in assets they hold, even as their investment portfolios have fallen sharply. Imagine how urgent these appeals could be a few months from now, with unemployment at 25 percent? 

Likewise, the great fortunes of the super-rich—which will remain great even after taking a titanic hit in the markets—may come to seem ever more illegitimate in an era of crushing pain for ordinary people. Whatever donations that billionaires make will seem like crumbs compared to all the money they’re keeping for themselves while Americans get wiped out. A wealth tax, which was shunted off to the sidelines when Joe Biden came to dominate the Democratic primary, could roar back to life as the public and lawmakers alike clamor for more financial resources to fight an economic catastrophe. 

It’s impossible to say how debates over philanthropy and wealth will play out in the harsh and dark times to come. But this is a moment for every foundation and wealthy donors to think in new ways about their purpose. Before this calamity, foundations held nearly $1 trillion in their endowments and several thousand of the wealthiest American households had $4 trillion in assets. Most of these wealth holders, both institutional and individual, were keenly focused on preserving and building these assets long into the future. 

Now, all should be asking to what extent that remains the best plan. The rainy day is here. And if those who can do more to help play it too safe, the backlash to philanthropy we’ve seen so far may be nothing compared to what lies ahead. 

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