The Indianapolis News
July 12, 1999
Alan W. Dowd

The most recent survey of foundation giving reveals that the nation’s ten largest foundations donated over $2 billion to charity in 1997 alone. Our own Lilly Endowment was an impressive third on the list, giving away a quarter-billion dollars during that 12-month period.

Corporate giving is also exploding, as technology and pharmaceutical companies share the wealth generated in their booming industries: Merck, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, Intel, and Pfizer donated $100 million or more apiece to charitable causes during 1997.

Individual philanthropy among the super-rich is booming as well, the most famous (or infamous) gifts given by Ted Turner and Bill Gates. Turner turned more than a few heads last year when he pledged $1 billion in support of a foundation for United Nations programs. Gates has shoveled $3.3 billion into a pair of foundations committed to health, education, and library technology, and he just wrote a check for $100 million to vaccinate Third World children.

It’s a good thing that a strong economy has enabled these men, corporations, and foundations to share wealth, because most Americans are less generous than they used to be. In fact, we’re donating just 1.6% of our income to charity--down from 2.1% in 1969. And the percentage of U.S. households giving to charity hasn’t changed in almost three years.

That’s why it is so disappointing and ironic that the public response to large-scale philanthropy often ranges from indifference to cynicism. Some blast the gifts as tools of self-promotion; some say the gifts marginalize more modest acts of charity; some criticize Gates, Turner, and their corporate and foundation counterparts for giving too much; still others say they give too little. This sort of criticism is neither constructive nor fair.

Perhaps we have forgotten what philanthropy means. It was once nothing more or less than a "love for mankind." An entry in Webster’s Dictionary defines philanthropy simply as, "doing good to others." However, its meaning has evolved, or perhaps devolved, to the point where philanthropy connotes something far different today than its classical definition described.

Americans increasingly view philanthropy as the domain of the rich, a point underscored by the steady decline in household giving. We discount it as a tool for the wealthy to promote their names and protect their assets. What the rest of us do is somehow less self-serving, in our unspoken collective opinion.

As a result, we place the wealthy and the corporations they run in a kind of catch-22. They are called selfish when they do not give, and their motives are impugned when they do give. The Turner and Gates gifts are just the latest episodes.

Wealth is a kind of power, and how one uses his wealth can have a significant impact on society. The philanthropy of wealthy families and large corporations has helped mend wounded soldiers, feed the hungry, preserve national treasures, eradicate disease, and educate millions.

Unfortunately, some have used philanthropy for selfish ends. Just last month, financier Martin Frankel was caught stealing $2 billion dollars from the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation. U.N. relief agencies report that a handful of corporations sent useless items such as lip balm and Q-Tips to Kosovo in order to receive tax benefits.

But let’s not punish all mega-philanthropists for the sins of a few. Medicine, law, government, education, and business are used by the unscrupulous as well. Does that mean all doctors, lawyers, government officials, school administrators, and salesmen are unscrupulous or self-serving? Of course not.

When a doctor goes above and beyond his medical call to duty, only to be rewarded by his peers and patients later on, do we impugn his motives? When a lawyer does pro bono work, knowing it will enhance her image and bolster her career, do we scoff at her act of generosity? We shouldn’t. Nor should we smear the generosity of corporations or billionaires.

Let’s measure philanthropy against its classical definition: If it helps others, if it is an expression of someone’s love for mankind, it should be applauded. If it’s less than this, then it is not philanthropy.

For every Martin Frankel, there are hundreds of generous millionaires and billionaires, many of them anonymous. For every case of Chapstick rotting away in Albania, there are thousands of tons of food, medicine, and blankets--given by U.S. companies--being used by Kosovo’s refugees.

Ted Turner’s gift is helping global anti-landmine and anti-hunger programs. Bill Gates’ foundation is linking libraries--and the under-privileged people who often rely on them--to the resources of the Internet.

Lilly Endowment has built a state-wide network of small foundations that help at-risk kids, civic groups, faith-based groups, and hospitals, thereby providing some relief to local governments and overburdened taxpayers.

Merck and Pfizer are donating medicines, easing the burden on federal healthcare programs. IBM and Intel are providing computers and software, thus bridging the gap between the technology haves and have-nots in our information-based economy.

Our cynicism will have a terrible chilling effect on such "love for mankind." And our own drift away from giving will pull us farther apart from each other, for just as a philanthropic act ripples throughout and across and into society, the absence of that act likewise affects society.

America needs philanthropists--no matter how much they give or who they are. We need wealthy philanthropists, corporate philanthropists, and foundations as much as we need local volunteers and small donors.

So what if Gates and Turner and their gigantic corporations gain economic or social benefit as a result of giving something away? If they’re doing good to others as well as themselves, then so much the better. Helping others should not disqualify someone from helping himself.