michael bloomberg Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

Too Much Gratitude?

Many people give from gratitude, not only to the universities they attended, but also to their primary and secondary schools, and to hospitals that treated them when they were ill. But grateful giving doesn't necessarily do the most good.

PRINCETON – Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion.

Many people give from gratitude, not only to the universities they attended, but also to their primary and secondary schools, and to hospitals that treated them when they were ill. These apparently laudable reasons for giving are in tension with the idea, popularized by the “effective altruism” movement, that we should do the most good we can. Bloomberg seems aware of this way of thinking, for he offers another reason for his most recent gift: “no qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account.”

In the United States, in contrast to other affluent countries, students are often unable to go to the colleges and universities of their choice because they cannot afford the high fees charged. Student loans may be available, but they will have to be repaid after graduating. Bloomberg’s gift adds one more university to the handful (including Princeton University, my employer) where those without the means to pay will have their tuition and living expenses fully covered.

Bloomberg has an admirable record of doing good. Thrice elected mayor of New York City, his administration saved lives by banning smoking in restaurants and indoor workplaces and reduced air pollution, including a 19% reduction in city-wide greenhouse-gas emissions. He campaigned against illegal guns, and later founded and financially supports the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety.

According to Forbes, which this year began ranking the world’s richest people for their philanthropy, Bloomberg has given away more than $5.5 billion. That places him third, trailing only Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates on the Forbes list, which takes into account both the absolute sum given and the proportion of a person’s wealth represented by that sum. Bloomberg has taken the Giving Pledge, committing himself to giving at least half of his fortune to charity. In fact, he has written that “nearly all of my net worth will be given away in the years ahead or left to my foundation.”

And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot. (If you want to know more about Rowan – and why he is likely to have been right – listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s entertaining podcast about him.)

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But while doing the most good ought to take priority over personal feelings like gratitude, we don’t have to set aside our personal feelings entirely. Gratitude could have led Bloomberg to have given, say, $1 million to Johns Hopkins University on the basis of those feelings. That would have more than satisfied any moral debt he may have felt toward his alma mater, and left $1,799 million to go toward doing the most good.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. Just since 2014,Bloomberg’s wealth has jumped by 50%, to $48 billion. If he thinks that increasing equality of opportunity in education does the most good, he can follow Rowan’s example and seek out needy institutions. The really weak links in education, however, are not in the United States. George Soros, another impressive philanthropist, founded the Central European University in order to provide new educational opportunities for students from all over the world, but especially from the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Today, the greatest need for education is in developing countries, where many children do not even complete primary school. In Kenya, primary school teacher salaries start at 17,000 shillings per month, or $2,000 per year. At that rate, $1.8 billion would get you 18,000 such teachers for the next 50 years.

Nor is education the only contender for the most good you can do. Dylan Matthews, who writes about effective altruism for Vox, drew on estimates by the charity evaluator GiveWell to suggest that if Bloomberg had donated his $1.8 billion to the Against Malaria Foundation to enable it to purchase and distribute more bed nets, he could have saved more than 400,000 lives. There are also many other highly cost-effective charities with proven techniques for helping people in extreme poverty (for examples, see The Life You Can Save, a non-profit I founded). And you don’t have to be a billionaire to make a difference.

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