Recently, The New York Times ran a thought-provoking story on “troll philanthropy”, which underscores the reality that the charitable giving of high-profile, megadonors is frequently – if not always – subject to public scrutiny, whether it’s instigated by the donors or not. The story centers on Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s seeming interest in using his reputation as an ultra-wealthy philanthropist to antagonize the public. It highlights his recent challenge on Twitter to the World Food Programme in which he said: “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B would solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.” It also cites an online poll he conducted to ask if he should sell 10 percent of his Tesla shares to pay taxes on his wealth.
Scrutiny aside, however – whether it’s warranted or not – as we settle into the new year and reflect on the immense challenges our world has been facing, I invite and encourage the philanthropic sector to celebrate its many accomplishments and progress.
The incredible growth, diversity and innovation transpiring in private philanthropy today is exciting and inspiring. Private foundations and individual donors come in all shapes and sizes and take varied approaches to reaching their end goal: making a positive difference. They range from couples, to multigenerational families, to young entrepreneurs who’ve amassed wealth early in their careers, and even to companies that want to have a more pronounced emphasis on ESG and social responsibility.
Most philanthropists also are far from the megadonor status of Musk. Of the approximate 100,000 private non-operating foundations in the US, nearly two-thirds have less than $1 million in assets and 98% have less than $50 million in assets, according to the IRS. Despite their diversity, today’s donors share a common interest: actively engaging in their philanthropy and effecting positive change.
Philanthropy is an inspiring combination of agency (the choice one makes to do something not derived from government, religious, or public mandate), ingenuity (the ideas around what problems to solve and how to solve them to effect change), and opportunity (the financial and intellectual resources, regardless of zeros and years of experience, that can be deployed to help and create change).
Every day, I am inspired by the agency, ingenuity and opportunity that countless philanthropists deploy under the radar to help, innovate, improve, and generally make our world better. I see them support incredibly meaningful cultural organizations such as museums, orchestras, libraries and theatres that honor our past and inspire artists of the future. I see families who have lost children to unspeakable tragedy convert their grief into preventive action by funding medical research and developing educational curricula.
I see “disrupter” philanthropists who eschew traditional grantmaking practices to fund high-risk, high-impact projects that capture the attention of larger donors and government entities that can bring more resources to each initiative.
And I see foundation leaders commit to refreshing their philanthropy with strategies that will result in sustained systems change, such as investing now in food science that may not produce nutritional calories at scale for years to come.
These examples are just a fraction of the creative and inspired ways that philanthropists are effecting change and there are countless causes that deserve more attention and more funding than they receive. In the dawn of this new year, I celebrate all philanthropists. It is a privilege to play a small part in their powerful displays of the human spirit.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Wong is the National Director of Philanthropic Advisory Services for Foundation Source. We are the nation’s largest provider of management solutions to private foundations. We work in partnership with financial and legal advisors as well as directly with individuals and families.