Is philanthropy undemocratic?

Ten years ago, when Stanford political science professor Rob Reich sent his first-born son off to kindergarten in Palo Alto, Calif., he was shocked to receive a note from the public school on the first day of his son’s enrollment.

“Our expected, but voluntary, contribution to support the finances of the school is $2,000 per child,” the note read.

That experience so disturbed and intrigued the political scientist that he began to look into the data about private fundraising for public schools. “It showed exactly what you’d predict. It didn’t happen in poorer neighborhoods,” Reich says.

The intersection of education and politics was not a new area for Reich; it had been the subject of his graduate study at Stanford, following an earlier stint as a sixth-grade teacher in Houston.

The inspiration he got from his experience with the Palo Alto school system culminated in his book Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, released in November 2018, and gave Reich a voice in the debate about philanthropy that includes social critics such as Anand Giridharadas. The toxic philanthropy of people like Jeffrey Epstein and the Sackler family has intensified concerns.

In looking at philanthropy, Reich takes a more nuanced approach. As he recalls, the donations to the Palo Alto public school were eligible for the charitable deduction—which seemed the opposite of what that public policy was intended to do.

Instead of giving to the poor, “it’s people giving to their own kids’ schools in wealthy suburbs to support their own property values, and the federal government is giving a public subsidy to it,” he says.

Reich thought that only exacerbated the problem that government was supposed to be IMG_1043redressing—and he began a decade-long look into the history of charitable deductions, their tax benefits and the policies that shape big philanthropy.

I recently interviewed Reich, who is also the director of Stanford’s McCoy Center for Ethics in Society and codirector of its Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, for Worth about why much of philanthropy is undemocratic and unaccountable, how the tax law should be changed—and what philanthropy can do that’s helpful.

Please read the full interview here.




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