Looking forward to upcoming Reich-Buchanan debate about whether giving by wealthy is a good thing or not

Aug 6, 2019

“Let’s you and him fight.”

Rob Reich and Phil Buchanan have agreed to a debate about whether giving by the wealthy is a good thing or not, and this is a good thing. Given the participants and the degrees to which they’ve thought and written about the subject, it certainly promises to be informative and enlightening interchange. It is not a conventional left-right argument, moreover, which sure might make it refreshing.

A Stanford political-science professor and author of the self-explanatorily subtitled Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, Reich is part of a group of progressives who have been harshly critiquing the very formation, structure, and practice of American establishment philanthropy overall, but most of this establishment is liberal. As president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, Buchanan—author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count—has essentially become part of the country’s liberal philanthropic establishment.

To a conservative, quoting J. Wellington Wimpy (about Bluto versus Popeye), there’s a little bit of “let’s you and him fight” about all this.

Reich and Buchanan are to be complimented for engaging with each other’s positions in this way, of course, as are those sponsoring and presenting the event—Philanthropy New York (PNY), SeaChange Capital Partners, and Baruch College’s Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management. It will be held on September 19 at PNY, after its 40thannual meeting and as part of its “PNY at 40: Reframing Philanthropy Series.”

Reich’s Just Giving examines the laws and policies structuring charitable giving, finding that they favor the interests wealthy individuals rather than those in need. It shares a progressive philanthroskepticism with others, including author and commentator Anand Giridharadas and foundation official Edgar Villanueva.

Giridharadas has garnered much attention for condemning big philanthropy’s self-interested preservation of the status quo in his Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, among other things, radically calls for philanthropy to grieve for the past genocidal slaveholding of capitalists and start making de facto private downpayments on the larger, necessary public reparations for their collective guilt.

While Buchanan’s Giving Done Right has both criticism of and advice for philanthropy, it generally defends the larger enterprise. “I didn’t really anticipate that the book would come out amidst such a degree of cynicism about philanthropy,” Buchanan told me in a June conversation. “[Y]ou could see some of it coming, but not to this degree. So that has been interesting and has made me really motivated to try to get the word out, to counter what I think is kind of a dangerous level of cynicism about giving back.”

Buchanan went on to say “I think my book is actually harsher about specific instances of philanthropic failure than any of the three others” and

My book is more pragmatic. It’s rooted in the reality that here we are on planet Earth, where there are a lot of folks with a lot of resources and they can now choose what to do with them. And we can have all kinds of debates about whether they should have been taxed differently or how the money was made, but now here they are and they have a choice whether to give or not and they have a choice whether to do the hard work to learn how to give effectively or not. And that has enormous consequences for the vast and diverse range of nonprofit organizations doing, in some cases, really important work in communities and on issues in our country.

Entire critiques of philanthropy are being written without any discussion—literally, no discussion—of nonprofit organizations that are supported by philanthropy. …

We can talk about what the capital-gains tax rate should be, and we should talk about that, but that isn’t going to affect people who already have their wealth. I think we should be able to kind of have both conversations at once, and I think there’s been kind of an odd conflation of frustration with inequality, and with our approach to taxation, with a sort of broadside against philanthropy.

If this kind of realistic tendency on the part of Buchanan’s is contrasted during the upcoming debate with the kinds of much more-radical critiques represented by Reich, Giridharadas, and Villanueva, among others, that would further the larger discussion about the role of philanthropy in America—and, if it’s not playing that role well or properly, what to do about it, if anything.

The world of philanthropy has long been staid, to say the least. It should be subject to more criticism, in fact—perhaps including harshly, if warranted, but not unfairly. Debates like the upcoming PNY one between Reich and Buchanan can help determine whether the new critiques are warranted or unfair. As establishment philanthropy is relatively newly subject to such criticism—well, then, yes, let’s you and him fight.

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