In his new book, David Callahan, the founder and editor of website Inside Philanthropy argues that philanthropy by today’s uber-wealthy can disrupt the course of democracy – especially when it replaces state funding. In the latest issue of Overseas, Ross Davies met the author to discuss the socio-political complexities of giving in modern society.
What do you do when you’re richer than Croesus? Or, rather, what should you do as a member of that distinct class known as the super wealthy? It’s clearly a question that has been playing on the mind of Jeff Bezos. Th e Amazon CEO and Founder recently took to Twitter to appeal for advice on a new “philanthropy strategy”. It’s a move that surprised philanthropic circles. Bezos, who is reportedly on the verge of becoming the world’s richest man, is not known for his overt generosity in the same way uber-wealthy peers Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffet are.
That particular triumvirate are signed up to the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest people to commit more than half their wealth to charitable causes and philanthropy – either during their lifetime or posthumously. Bezos, however, has so far resisted the urge to join a club that now has 158 members on its books. The direct motivation behind Bezos’s awakening is unclear – although, in his tweet, he did praise the work of Mary’s Place, a non-profit day centre for the homeless in his hometown Seattle, of which Amazon is an official sponsor. Let’s hypothesise a moment. Who’s to say Bezos couldn’t transmute this inspiration into setting up fellow day centres up and down the US, benefiting local communities in the process?
Homelessness appears close to his heart – Amazon is currently building a homeless shelter in its new Seattle HQ – so why stop there? With such wealth and reputation, Bezos might even choose to wield influence in political circles to the current homelessness crisis in the US, in which close to 565,000 people are reported to be on the streets. It doesn’t have to be contained to stateside activities, either. Aft er all, last year, Bill Gates convinced the UK government to pledge £3 billion as part of efforts to eradicate malaria. But wait. Isn’t it the state’s job to curb destitution, just as it is to oversee education, health and transport? Despite coming from the most benign of places, are philanthropists in danger of subverting the governments we elect?