More than a century after the founding of the first charitable foundation, the face of philanthropy in America has changed, according to a new book, The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, by David Callahan.
A new crop of the ultra-rich make up a “new class of super-citizens whose wealth influences the political landscape,” explains Lovia Gyarkye, and Callahan looks at what their new their foundations, pledges, and organizations mean for American democracy.
Modern philanthropy was born in the early 20th century with a $10 million gift from Margaret Sage, the widow a railroad tycoon, to the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, notes Gyarkye.
There has been a significant power shift between the federal government and large charitable institutions in recent decades, argues Callahan, the result of the increasing wealth of the top one percent and the declining commitment of the federal government to provide public goods and services.
“The problem, of course, with outsourcing our public services to philanthropic organizations,” writes Gyarkye, “is that it shifts agency from the government, which is accountable to the people, to the private sector, which is not.”
Many of our new philanthropists, such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who made their money from ambitious business and tech endeavors, form a minority that can influence policy and even shape the terms of our national conversations before voters are even made aware of an issue.
Philanthropists have acquired this power just as ordinary citizens have lost it, and, as Callahan demonstrates, their voices, amplified by wealth, often divide the very communities, and marginalize the very people, they seek to help, says Gyarkye.