Hello Philanthropoids,

I hope you are all well?

This year really seems to be racing past. The sight of a small clump of daffodils out of the corner of my eye as I write this not only makes my Welsh exile heart sing, but also makes me realise that all of a sudden spring feels tantalising close (and I for one cannot wait…)

And despite February being the shortest month, there has definitely been no shortage of philanthropy news! We’ve got another jam-packed edition for you, with loads of links to stories, publications and random bits of philanthro-fluff that have caught my eye in recent weeks – plus the usual update on what we’ve been up to at Why Philanthropy Matters.

So without further ado make yourself a nice beverage, find a comfy spot, and dive into this month’s newsletter.




Giving Big, Stateside

This month saw the release of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s latest list of top 50 biggest donors in the US. This report tends to give rise to a mixture of celeb-spotting style interest in the individuals in question, together with more sober analysis of what it says about trends and patterns at the top end of philanthropy, and this year was no different.

An interesting article in The Conversation asked three philanthropy academics for their take on the figures. Among the key points they identified were the fact that overall donations are significantly down on the previous two years; the fact that a decent number of entrants in the list are not on the corresponding Forbes list of top 400 wealthiest people (suggesting that the individuals in question are giving disproportionately big, and plenty of others are giving far too little….); and the fact that despite we’re constantly told about the rise of ‘new generation’ of donors, none of the people on the list are under 40.

Vox, meanwhile, got some insight from historian of philanthropy Ben Soskis (a previous guest on our Philanthropisms podcast), on why some notable big givers (e.g. MacKenzie Scott) are missing from this list and what that tells us about norms of transparency vs anonymity in philanthropy.

(It should be said that this infographic is from 1942 rather than now, but I like it so much I thought I would use it to illustrate here…)

Sacks of Cash?

It was revealed in the Financial Times this month that a number of institutions linked to Oxford University have continued to have strong links to the Sackler Family, despite widespread condemnation of the Sacklers for their role in the US opioid crisis, and bucking the wider trend for non-profit organisations to sever ties with the family and – in some cases – even remove their name from buildings and gallery wings. The article in question reported that Oxford had not only continued to take Sackler money, but had actively courted members of the family and offered them access to exclusive events and social gatherings.

It should be said that the Sackler family members in question are not part of the main family, and some would argue (including presumably, those individuals themselves) that they should not be tarred with the same brush. Critics, however, would point out that the original source of the wealth is the same so the same fundamental criticisms apply (even if there may be a difference of degree). This highlights the fact that determinations of what counts as “tainted money” and what to do with it are often far from straightforward, and have been posing ethical challenges for donors and charities for hundreds of years (as discussed in detail in a previous episode of the Philanthropisms podcast).

Philanthropy & The War in Ukraine

There were a couple of interesting articles this month looking at what has happened to philanthropic support to address the war in Ukraine, one year on from the start of the conflict. A piece in Devex reported that recent figures from the non-profit data and research organisation Candid show that philanthropic donations to Ukraine have largely dried up. An article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy looking at the same set of figures focussed on the fact that many of the biggest donations to Ukraine have come from technology companies and social purpose businesses.

An interesting piece from Associated Press also looked at the role of tech companies, and took it as a starting point for a wider exploration of some of the ethical challenges that the war in Ukraine poses for philanthropic donors (e.g. is the provision of military hardware and weapons an act of philanthropy if that is what is needed on the ground? And is the apparent generosity of big tech companies entirely driven by altruism, or by longer term self-interest and business development?) Civil Society magazine, meanwhile, took a look at some of the challenges faced by new charities that have been set up in the last year in the UK in response to the situation in Ukraine.

Scamming Donations to Turkey & Syria

In the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, there was a worrying story on the BBC about scammers using social media platforms (particularly TikTok) to solicit donations charitable donations that are siphoned off for their own profit.

Fraudulent fundraising is clearly not a new thing, but in the past its scale has been very limited (despite the claims of those who want to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of charities). However, new technologies are making it far easier for scammers to operate. The rise of platforms has disintermediated the relationship between giver and recipient (often cutting traditional non-profits out of the loop entirely). This may bring benefits in terms of driving giving by bringing more immediacy and human connection back into philanthropy, but it also opens up new opportunities for fraudsters to take advantage, because if people are willing to bypass traditional charitable organisations they forego all the safeguards that come with regulation and legal requirements.

The scammers are also getting more sophisticated in their use of technology, combining AI-generated images and video with cryptocurrency wallets that allow them to take donations easily in a way that is difficult to trace. The concern is that as more people choose to bypass traditional non-profit infrastructure and give directly via social media and commercial payment platforms, the incidence of this kind of fundraising fraud will continue to rise. (For more on the challenges, and opportunities, presented by the rise of giving platforms, check out this episode of the Philanthropisms podcast).

Tech Philanthropy on the Rise

Continuing on the theme of tech and philanthropy, there was an interesting piece in The Economist this month about the rise of tech money in philanthropy and what it means in terms of new trends in approaches and attitudes to giving. The article highlighted the fact that tech donors tend to be younger, impatient to achieve results, and less keen on using traditional philanthropic foundations (preferring instead to use Donor Advised Funds (DAFs), or even for-profit structures like Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)).

There was also an intriguing article in TechCrunch looking at one particular tech donor, OpenAI founder Sam Altman, and the increasingly complex web of organisations he is associated with. Some of these organisations are non-profits, whilst others are for-profit- but the boundaries appear to be quite porous (OpenAI indeed, started life as a non-profit before evolving into a for-profit company). Some have raised eyebrows at this, although there is so far no suggestion that Altman has broken any rules. What it does show, to my mind, is that some tech donors clearly believe that the products and platforms that have made them rich are also benefitting society. And that for those who believe this, any dividing lines between commerce and philanthropy seem far less relevant.

That might be OK to some extent if we agree that their companies are actually producing social good – indeed, the idea of blending ‘profit and purpose’ is increasingly fashionable across the private sector. Where it becomes a problem, however, is when we set these claims of social purpose against the growing awareness of the potential harms done by many new technologies. We might also worry that not all claims to do social good by the business world are entirely genuine, and that there is increasingly a risk of “purpose-washing”, as companies adopt the language and markers of ‘purpose’ simply to burnish their own reputations or to stave off criticism.

B Careful of B Corps?

On a related note, an article in the FT this month took a deep dive into the current state of the B Corps movement. It highlighted the growth and success of the movement so far, but also explored concerns that in its desire to bring on board big name corporates, the B Corp movement may be in danger of diluting its principles and undermining its value as a marker of social purpose.

(NB: for more on the tangled history of efforts to combine profit with purpose, check out this recent episode of the Philanthropisms podcast).

Grumpy on Purpose

Although we might have reason to worry about the tech sector co-opting philanthropy for its own purposes, not everyone is on board with the whole ‘purpose’ agenda. It was reported in Business Insider that Meta’s Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth wrote a post on his personal blog this month in which he highlighted concerns that the company’s philanthropic activities and worker benefits were a “distraction” from what it should be doing, and made clear his nostalgia for the early days of the organisation when it had “more focus” (presumably on harvesting data and making vast sums of money through advertising….?)

This kind of view harks back to the arguments against CSR famously put forward by Milton Friedman (e.g. in his 1970 New York Times article “The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits”), but you don’t tend to hear it so much out in the open these days. I can’t decide whether that’s bad, or actually refreshing in a way. Obviously the ideal, to my mind, is that companies genuinely acknowledge that they have wider social responsibilities and act accordingly. But if it is a choice between a company cynically adopting the notion of purpose merely because that is the done thing, or being honest about the fact that they are only interested in making money, I’m not sure which I prefer. At least with the latter option we all know where we stand!

More on MrBeast

You may remember from the last newsletter that YouTube superstar MrBeast has had a slightly torrid time recently, after one of his regular videos showing him doing an apparently philanthropic act (in this case paying for 1000 people to have a low cost operation to restore their sight) drew criticism for being crass and exploitative.

This story has continued to rumble on this month, and philanthropy academic Matt Wade wrote a really good comment piece for ABC News about it (which I should flag up, in the interests of full disclosure, referenced something I wrote on the topic too - of which more in a moment).

Philanthropy & Journalism Down Under

Sticking down under for a moment, there was also an interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald this month, looking at the role philanthropy could play in supporting journalism in Australia. This is an area that is attracting a lot of attention around the world, partly driven from the journalism side by the need to find sustainable funding models as the news media industry evolves rapidly, and partly driven from the philanthropy side by an interest in whether supporting journalism could play an important part in strengthening the legitimacy of philanthropy with the democratic system.

The SMH piece looked at a range of examples from the Australian context to highlight both the positive potential of philanthropic funding for journalism, and some of the challenges (e.g. Are funders likely to be directive if they have an interest in particular topics being covered? Is there a danger that editorial independence will be compromised if media outlets feel unable to cover certain issues, either because a donor has explicitly said so or because they are self-censoring for fear of putting future funding at risk?)

(NB: If you are interested, I wrote an article for Alliance magazine a few years ago with my much better half, exploring the question of whether philanthropy should fund journalism as a public good in itself (rather than as a means to a particular end)).

More Turbulent Times for EA?

Last but not least for the news section, this month saw more turmoil within Effective Altruism. An article in Time magazine based on interviews with more than 30 people suggested that the movement has a “toxic culture” in which a wide range of women had suffered misogyny, sexual harassment and abuse. Concerns were also raised about the way in which complaints made by women involved in EA had been handled. Intriguingly, the article contemplates the possibility that this is in part a reflection of EA’s hyper-rational worldview, which means that the default of believing victims espoused by other movements like #MeToo are ignored in favour in demands that those who make claims of sexual harassment meet far higher “epistemic standards” of proof.

There was also a really interesting critique in Vox from Carla Cremer, outlining her views on the problems with the EA movement as it stands, and how it needs to change. This contains a lot of very punchy material, including this quote from a current EA movement member bemoaning the increasing centralisation of power in the hands of a few individuals who hold almost cult-like status:

“There are about 10 people who control nearly all the ‘EA resources.’ It’s just so weird. It’s not a disaster waiting to happen, it’s already happened. It increasingly looks like a weird ideological cartel where, if you don’t agree with the power holders, you’re wasting your time trying to get anything done.”

Definitely worth a read if you want a peek inside what is actually going on in the EA movement.


As ever, here’s a brief update on what we’ve been doing at Why Philanthropy Matters over the last month that you may have missed:

Mr Beast and Philanthropy in the Attention Economy: As mentioned above, I wrote a long read for WPM this month taking a look at the recent furore surrounding MrBeast and trying to unpick what we should make of it.

Read the article

Philanthropisms Podcast: On the podcast this month I spoke to Jake Ferguson and Vanessa Thomas from the Baobab Foundation about their work helping to build a new kind of community-led funder to address issues of systemic racial injustice. I also spoke to historian and political scientist Claire Dunning about her book Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State and how we should understand the relationship between state, philanthropy and community.

Listen to the Episode with Claire Dunning
Listen to the episode with Jake Ferguson & Vanessa Thomas

Podcast Guest Spots: I had a couple of opportunities this month to sit on the other side of the podcasting desk and be interviewed by someone else (which was very nice!) You can catch me on the Charity Impact podcast with Alex Blake, and on the Purposely Podcast with Mark Longbottom talking about how I got into philanthropy, why I think it is interesting and important, and what some of the key issues are right now. I also recorded an interview for the Bunker podcast about MrBeast and philanthropy, which should be out early next month (and that one is exciting, because it isn’t a nonprofit-specific podcast, so I may finally be managing to reach outside of the bubble!)

Listen to the Charity Impact Podcast
Listen to the Purposely Podcast

Impulse Stiften event: I did an enjoyable event this month for the Impulse Stiften group of German-speaking foundations, where Felix Dresewski and I spent quite a bit of time discussing Mackenzie Scott (among various other topics). You can check out a recording of the event (which was held in English, due to my deficient language skills).

Watch the Video

NEW BOOK (SORT OF) OUT! Slightly to my surprise, it turned out that the pre-orders of my new book What is Philanthropy For? were sent out this month, so some lucky people already have their hands on a copy. It is out properly on 28th March, and I have now added a link on the website to where you can get that, and my previous book Public Good by Private Means.

Find the books


Here are a few other things I thought worth noting over the last month.

  • Colin Rochester 1942-2023: There was sad news this month, with the passing of Colin Rochester – one of the driving forces behind the development of UK voluntary sector studies as a field over the last 40 years. I was fortunate enough to meet Colin and sit alongside him on a panel at the Voluntary Action History Society conference last year, which I feel very grateful for. You can read an obituary of Colin here, and read some of his thoughts on the value of historical perspective in understanding voluntary action (given as a paper to VAHS in 2014) here.

Read Colin’s VAHS Paper
  • The importance of charities speaking up: An important report from the Charity Reform Group (hosted by the Shelia McKechnie Foundation) came out this month, arguing for the importance of charity leaders continuing to speak out on issues in the face of increasing criticism of charities’ campaigning role from some politicians and commentators, and delving into what that means in practice.

Read the Report

Well, that’s all for this time. I’ll be back at the end of March with another dollop of philanthro-tainment, but stay well for now.