Redefining Philanthropy: Private Donors Underwrite Much of Modern Research

Image: John Kleinheinz Hedge Fund / Flickr

By Rithy Odom

SAN FRANCISCO—The world of philanthropy has undergone profound changes in recent years. The scientific enterprise is at the core of this evolution: Private entities and wealthy individuals are playing a more defining role in many fields of research.

Many scientists have welcomed these infusions. But they also raise a host of questions about why philanthropists make certain funding choices, whether scientists have had enough input, and how this radically different funding model affects the way science unfolds. A panel of funders, researchers and sociologists addressed these topics, among many others, on 27 October at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2017 in a session titled “Science’s Billionaire Backers: Philanthropy’s Role in Research.”


Aaron Horvath

The discussants included Aaron Horvath, a Ph.D. fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Among his areas of research, Horvath has examined how ultra-rich philanthropists, whose influence was considered a threat to democracy in the United States a century ago, became perceived as legitimate underwriters of public enterprise.

After the session, Horvath sat down with Rithy Odom to discuss some of the key themes.

—What key questions about science philanthropy does your research address?

—Philanthropists used to face a lot of pressure from the state about whether their work was legitimate. If you pose that question now in the U.S., people would go, “Are you crazy or what? Of course they are legitimate.” But if you look back in history, the philanthropy that is celebrated now is something that wasn’t there. As a sociologist, I am trying to look at something that is totally common and normal now and ask, where does it even come from? Why is it normal?

There is a trend towards 'disruptive' philanthropy nowadays.

It’s also interesting that if you look back in history, you have a different mode of philanthropy. They were tiptoeing a little more. They were looking to contribute new things to the world. We call this a “contributory” approach, with the idea that they contributed something new that got picked up by established science and, in modern language, brought to scale.

What we are seeing now is less of a concern about bringing something new to the world. Instead, philanthropists are becoming providers of that thing. For instance, public education already exists. But because there are a lot of problems, many philanthropists take it upon themselves to focus on alternatives. We call this “disruptive” philanthropy, because the state is necessarily slow. The philanthropists are trying to take over this part of the sphere and claim it for themselves.

—In your chapter in the book Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, I was struck by those categories you gave to private philanthropy: it is either “disruptive” or “contributory.” Do you think one has overtaken the other?

—I don’t know if I necessarily say that one has overtaken the other. I think there is still plenty of contributory philanthropy. The caveat, I would say, is we are looking at things that happened recently to say they are disruptive.

Maybe entrepreneurs are now more celebrated, and the state is less so. Since [President Ronald] Reagan, there is a view that the scariest words are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” There is a belief that the government is a less legitimate player, and private action is more legitimate.

"It’s probably undercovered that philanthropy is taxpayers’ money."

—How have initiatives like “The Giving Pledge” by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates redefined the credibility of philanthropy?

—They seem to take for granted that they are playing with Treasury money. The money is tax deductible and is exempt from being taxed. That’s one of the things that is manifest about their legitimacy. They work from the assumption that what they’re doing is legitimate. But it’s healthy to remember that it’s not necessarily great to be a philanthropist. There can be problems. I think it’s probably undercovered that philanthropy is taxpayers’ money.

—Any form of philanthropy would seem to provide positive outcomes to society. Do you think private philanthropy’s goals have been achieved?

—That’s an empirical case-by-case question. A classic example is [Mark] Zuckerberg [CEO of Facebook] sending money to fix the school system in Newark, New Jersey, and that didn’t work. A lot of money went to consultants, there were a lot of meetings, but people moved on to other things and the big plans didn’t work out.

—Can we say that scientific research from private philanthropy now sets the stage for private agendas, or does it somehow become a means to support a form of corporate colonization?

—You can wonder if some companies also engage in philanthropy to fund research that might then help their bottom line. It’s totally possible; I don’t know offhand of a good example of that. I think that has been a criticism in the past, too. Sincere philanthropy is really problematic. You can very sincerely do some horrible things, right? Or you can very sincerely think that you are contributing in positive ways, but ultimately it is still lining your pocket. I’m not saying everyone is doing that, or even that most or some funder are doing that.

—One reason science has shifted to private funding is because, as you state in your chapter, the federal government is cutting back its support and has done so for years. Why has the government rolled back its support of funding science?

—One view is that government should be smaller. When you see evidence that private funders are covering this, [government funders may think] “Whoa, we can back off.” Maybe it’s more easily justified, but I really don’t know.

Rithy Odom is a student of media and communication and a graduate from the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has internship experience with the Voice of America and was a member to the U.S. Ambassador Youth Council and Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.