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Standing in philanthropy’s corner

13 September 2022 at 4:33 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Are philanthropists just tax dodgers in disguise? A former fundraiser-turned-academic is setting the record straight. 

Danielle Kutchel | 13 September 2022 at 4:33 pm


Standing in philanthropy’s corner
13 September 2022 at 4:33 pm

Are philanthropists just tax dodgers in disguise? A former fundraiser-turned-academic is setting the record straight. 

It’s likely anyone working in fundraising has heard the oft-repeated critiques of philanthropy.

But for Dr Beth Breeze OBE, director of the Global Challenges Doctoral Centre and the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, those critiques are personal.

The fundraiser-turned-academic is seeking to understand attitudes towards philanthropy and how to defend against unfounded criticisms of giving.

Coming  from a fundraising background, Breeze understands the importance of philanthropy in keeping good causes going. She sensed a lack of research behind the practice and has set out to change that, helping to professionalise the sector and provide an evidence base for what philanthropists do.

Changing attitudes to philanthropy

Breeze recently took to the stage in Sydney at the Philanthropy Australia National Conference, where she drew on the arguments she makes in her award-winning book In Defence of Philanthropy to discuss how people view philanthropy and giving.

Her keynote came just days after a report highlighted that Australia’s mega-wealthy aren’t giving as much as high net wealth individuals in other countries, something that could be particularly problematic as the federal government seeks to double philanthropic giving by 2030.

Breeze told Pro Bono News she felt that public attitudes towards philanthropy had hardened, but that many of the attacks on philanthropy directed at “rich people” were more about attacking their wealth than their charitable actions.

“[There is] an assumption that they’re tax dodgers, that they just want to see their name on a building, that they just want to hobnob. And that’s why I wrote the defence because I thought, we can’t just let this go. We can’t just not respond to these arguments because it just didn’t square with my experience with philanthropists,” she explained.

Contrary to public and scholarly criticisms, the philanthropists she’s met have been well-intentioned people frustrated by a lack of government funding for particular causes.

And she said many of the critiques don’t make sense.

“That’s what’s aroused my interest sociologically. I wanted to critique the critics and find out what was going on,” she explained.

Psychologically, she said attacks on philanthropy may stem from the concept of “do-gooder derogation” — in other words, tall poppy syndrome.

While there is plenty of research around do-gooder derogation, not much of that concerns philanthropy, which is where Breeze comes in: she’s hoping to conduct her own research into this behaviour as it relates to charitable giving, with the goal of seeing philanthropy stretched further and money having a greater impact on the causes philanthropists care about.

But in the meantime, she’s concerned that philanthropy’s “bad reputation” may impede money directed at good social causes.

Who is attacking philanthropy?

While attacks on philanthropy aren’t new, Breeze said they have been amplified by mass media — in movies, for example, villains often hide behind a philanthropic front, while social media enhances negative sentiments.

Breeze conducted a survey of the British public in which she asked people what came to mind when she said ‘philanthropy’. Many of the responses were negative, with words like ‘bad’, ‘cheat’, ‘crafty’, ‘cunning’, ‘egotist’ and ‘greedy’ coming up in responses. 

She also studied references to philanthropy in the British media and found that many of them were negative too.

Speaking at the Philanthropy Australia National Conference in Sydney, Breeze said hyper-criticism of philanthropy lacks nuance and could hamper philanthropic efforts.

In her book, Breeze identifies three models of critique levelled at philanthropy: the academic, the insider, and the populist critiques.

Put simply, the academic critique considers philanthropy to be an “undemocratic exercise in power”.

The insider critique comes from within the sector and criticises what donors give to and whether their cause is ‘correct’.

The populist critique suggests “that giving is really taking in disguise” as rich people seek ways of gaining advantages or hiding bad deeds.

Breeze said it is possible to defend against each of these.

She suggested “calling out” the populist attack as a simple way of defending against it.

In the case of the insider critique, Breeze said those working in the sector need to work with philanthropists to improve philanthropy, so that they give more, and more effectively.

The academic critique has a grain of truth in it, she said, in that donors aren’t elected and can give where and what they choose. Breeze suggested pushing back against this criticism by pointing out that many people in the world wield influence and power, from business leaders to lobbyists and advocates.

Philanthropy can play an active role in supporting democracy, she explained.

“In healthy democracies, new ideas need to arise and existing choices need to be challenged. One of philanthropy’s most powerful roles is to help improve democracy through outside pressure, funding research, advocacy and campaigns.”

Is philanthropy deserving of criticism?

That’s not to say philanthropy is perfect, Breeze added.

“If I was attacking philanthropy, I’d probably make [the] argument that there’s not enough of it,” she said.

She wants to see philanthropists give more to their causes, and for Australia to celebrate these donations.

Breeze would also like philanthropy to be higher up people’s list of priorities, rather than being left to old age.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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