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Philanthropy vs. Democracy

Philanthropy is an ancient institution, but one that raises fundamental questions related to taxation, fairness, and democracy. In order to continue flourishing in the twenty-first century, two requirements must be met: the development of clear guiding principles that reflect the sector’s diversity, and better governance.

BERLIN – Donating private wealth to worthy causes is an ancient, noble institution. But, for as long as philanthropy has existed, it has also been a controversial practice. “To give away money is an easy matter, and in any man’s power,” according to Aristotle. “But to decide to whom to give it, and how large, and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

If anything, that controversy is even more salient in today’s world, because the role of philanthropy has become profoundly unclear. Governments too often regard philanthropic foundations as cash machines to fill gaps in public budgets or to help implement policy. Wealthy donors eager to mitigate questionable behavior or otherwise bolster their public standing are easy prey for politicians seeking quick fixes. And other beneficiaries of philanthropy are afraid to bite the hands that feed them.

The result is a lack of real debate about the sector’s potential and limitations, much less answers to fundamental questions related to equity and democracy. And yet it is becoming increasingly clear that this state of affairs is no longer sustainable. If philanthropy is to continue flourishing in the twenty-first century, two requirements must be met: the development of clear guiding principles that reflect the sector’s diversity, and better governance.

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