Is all charity created equal?

Are donors who give to inner-city missions worthy of higher praise than donors who give to the opera? That’s the central question examined in two competing columns recently published by Philanthropy Journal.

In the first column, author Eric Friedman argues that philanthropy should be, principally, about helping the poor:

Is philanthropy about helping those in need or pursuing the personal passions of the donor? If it is the former, then shouldn’t a central tenet be to try to provide the most help possible? In this case, such donor-driven strategies should be widely regarded as failed philanthropy.

Being honest is not just about not lying but also requires a certain level of frankness. Not every good cause is equally good, and not every donor is equally deserving of praise. As long as the philanthropic community views those who donate millions to their favorite opera houses to be as generous as those who help the poorest people in the world, there is a lack of honesty. We should reserve the highest public praise for donors with the most altruistic motives and better understand our own reasons for giving. This type of honesty would lead donors to be less whimsical and more thoughtful about their giving choices.

On the flipside of that argument, Milton Rhodes (CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County) contends that philanthropy should reflect a donor’s passion:

Who defines “needs”? At this point, it is interesting to note that studies over the last many years have showed that people on the lower end of the economic scale give a greater percentage of their income to charities than those on the higher end. Their feelings and passions count, also.

You and I can judge, using whatever arbitrary standard we individually choose, the acts of others – here, charitable contributions – and withhold praise when it suits us. That is our privilege. But the notion of creating a hierarchy of “goodness” and ignoring the contributions of those who do not share our values defines reason. Because the “whims and preferences” of others do not conform to ours does not mean we are right and they are wrong. Will St. Peter stand at the Pearly Gates and separate those who contributed to the arts from those who contributed to feeding of the poor? I think not.

Piggybacking off Rhodes’ point, the real issue here is regulation. Philanthropy, as it stands now in the United States, is a marketplace in which we copy successes and discard failures. Those who wish for more governmental interference in philanthropy — say, through funneling charitable dollars to where the powers that be believe they are most needed — want that marketplace to be tightly regulated. Should we?

The answer: Most certainly not. By increasing government control over philanthropy, we would convert the world of charitable giving from a free marketplace to a political marketplace. Bureaucrats and elected officials would make decisions about what constitutes “good” and “bad” philanthropy. Similar to the failures of the welfare state since the 1960s, this would help no one and harm many.

The best bet for a robust future for philanthropy is a robust, free marketplace. In the end, donor passion need not be in conflict with helping those most in need. The goal is to maintain a strong mix of philanthropic passion with logic and reason.