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A bigger seat at the table

David Callahan’s The Givers asks if the new megadonors are distorting society

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The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age

By David Callahan, 343 pages, $29

Imagine you have more money than you know what to do with. Not tens of millions of dollars, but hundreds of millions - billions even. After acquiring that dream villa on Lake Como, a vintage Bugatti and a seat on Elon Musk’s maiden voyage to Mars, what would you do with the rest of your fortune? Buy the Yankees? Pay the Kardashians to disappear? OK But then what? Among America’s ultrarich, more and more people are making the laudable, if not wholly selfless, decision to give it away.

Much like the poor, philanthropists have always been with us. Certainly, the United States has enjoyed its share of Rockefellers and Carnegies over the years. But in The Givers, David Callahan aims to introduce a new breed of megadonors – more numerous, more aggressive and vastly richer than their forebears – poised to reshape American society to an unprecedented degree. This, he contends, should make everyone at least a teensy bit nervous.

The Givers concerns itself with the tippy-top tiers of “the philanthrosphere.” We’re not talking here about bush-leaguers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, whose family foundation has to go scrounging for other people’s money. Callahan focuses on the biggest of big givers -– people like Bill Gates, the Walton clan, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett, who actually struggle to give away their fortunes because the money multiplies faster than they can shovel it out the door. The book covers all the basics: Who are these people? Why do they give? What causes do they favour, and how much impact do they have?

The founder and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy, Callahan clearly knows the game and its players. This has its drawbacks. Especially in the early going, the book can feel laundry listy. After spending a couple of pages ticking through top Wall Street givers, he assures readers: “I could name many additional donors coming out of finance, like Jeremy Grantham, Seth Klarman, Louis Bacon, George Roberts, Glenn Dubin, Kenneth Griffin, Michael Milken, Henry Kravis and Leon Black.” All right already. You know your stuff. Can we please move on?

Happily, Callahan hustles through the preliminaries and into a sweeping exploration of what makes mega-givers tick, how they operate and how they differ from their predecessors. Today’s masters of the universe, for instance, are donating at a much younger age and taking a much more hands-on approach. Forget spending decades amassing piles of cash to be handed over in the twilight of life to endow some foundation. These folks want to start saving the world right now.

Especially absorbing is Callahan’s probing of mega-givers’ psyches. Of course tech billionaires are all about risk-taking and disruption and tackling problems no one else is addressing. That’s how they got to be billionaires in the first place. (They are “more ready by disposition to embrace the adage that philanthropy ‘is society’s risk capital.’ “Wall Street donors are often drawn to the “stewardship model of philanthropy” and prefer to support well established institutions - universities, hospitals, land conservation trusts and so on. (“They’re more into charity than change.”) “Titans of the old economy” tend to be older, more methodical, less creative and more political.

Another significant development is the growing focus on data. (Even the philanthrosphere, it seems, has been invaded by the quants.) Givers are demanding an ever-clearer picture of what’s working and how to get the biggest bang for their bucks. Callahan devotes a chapter to givers’ quest for “leverage points,” most notably the strategic use of the court system to effect change.

As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Callahan is not here merely to praise the new philanthropists. His core mission is to sound the alarm about how even the best intentioned among them are distorting American society and eroding “the egalitarian ethos so core to our national identity.”

By now, pretty much everyone recognises the potentially corrupting aspects of big-dollar political giving. Callahan’s contention is that big-dollar philanthropy affords its purveyors even greater influence, with fewer downsides and vastly less accountability. Sinking millions into, say, a presidential campaign subjects givers to intense public scrutiny and may ultimately win them nothing. Funding a nonprofit to sway thinking on, say, climate change or marriage equality or school choice – pick your issue – is a lower-profile, less risky, more enduring investment.

The Givers is not a big-P political book. While Callahan takes issue with ideologically motivated giving dressed up as philanthropy (and with politically minded nonprofits enjoying the same tax status as traditional charities), he endeavours to be bipartisan in his scolding. For every tale of a conservative pushing supply-side economics or traditional marriage via “charitable” giving, he spotlights a liberal bankrolling gun control or clean energy. One positive byproduct of the swelling pool of mega-givers, he notes, is the philanthrosphere’s growing ideological diversity. You may hate how Charles Koch doles out his billions but delight in how George Soros uses his. Or vice versa.

Callahan stresses that it is not the specific aims of givers that make Big Philanthropy problematic so much as the fact that it’s, well, big. Rich people wielding inordinate clout in any sphere is profoundly undemocratic, he contends, repeatedly lamenting that philanthropy is “occupying a bigger seat at the table of power than at any time in the past century,” even as “ordinary Americans struggle to get their voices heard at all.” To the point of distraction, he asks “whether we think it’s OK overall for any philanthropists to have so much power to advance their own vision of a better society?”

Indeed, the book can be exhausting in its quest to hammer home the warping nature of Big Philanthropy. By the time Callahan makes the case that charitable giving actually perpetuates dynastic influence more than simply leaving one’s offspring a big pile of cash, many readers will be ready to throw up their hands in exasperation. So now we’re supposed to fret about rich people being too socially conscious? What exactly does this guy want?

For all his efforts toward partisan balance, Callahan has a clear political perspective. A co-founder of the progressive think tank Demos, he is an unapologetic fan of big government – which, as he sees it, is the proper shaper of society. Central to his concern about philanthropy’s clout is that it is waxing as government’s is waning. He warns in the prologue, “We face a future in which private donors – who are accountable to no one – may often wield more influence than elected public officials, who (in theory, anyway) are accountable to all of us.” (That “in theory” covers a multitude of sins. While it’s not Callahan’s aim to grapple with the gross dysfunction of our political system, his periodic touting of the oh-so-democratic accountability of public officials nonetheless comes off as vaguely credulous.)

It is not until the epilogue that Callahan really lets his progressive flag fly. He offers a handful of reform ideas that will feel familiar to anyone who has followed the money-in-politics debate over the years: greater transparency (especially when it comes to the “dark philanthropic money” channelled through opaque vehicles like “donor-advised funds”), stricter tax guidelines and increased government regulation. (He suggests a new “office of charitable affairs” to help on that front.)

With such prescriptions, Callahan seeks “to target the philanthropic behavioUr that’s most troubling, not hobble the sector as a whole.” But this also means that, as Callahan acknowledges, even the most ambitious of his reforms would do little to alter the fundamental nature, or spiraling influence, of the greater philanthrosphere.

As Callahan sees it, the only way to knock us off the path of “benign plutocracy” is “to revive government as a dynamic agent of change” – which is the modest proposal he presents in literally his final three pages. Such a revival would involve huge shifts in spending priorities, tax hikes on the wealthy and an overhaul of agencies. In other words: It would require an entirely different political and social climate than the one we have. Then again, tackling seemingly intractable problems is what Big Philanthropy is all about. As such, it seems uncharitable to deny Callahan his dreams of a more egalitarian world.

Many readers no doubt will share Callahan’s views on the dark side of Big Philanthropy, and his ideas for addressing it. But even those who don’t should give The Givers a go. Callahan offers a peek inside a rarefied, poorly understood world with ever greater power to remake the broader world. It’s an engaging, thought-provoking tour well worth the taking.

–New York Times News Service

Michelle Cottle is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, covering the culture and politics of Washington.

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