The Philanthropist by John Tesarsch

I had to read The Philanthropist by John Tesarsch simply because of the title.

It is a very recent Australian piece of fiction, published by Sleepers, and set in Melbourne.

The “philanthropist” of the title, is Charles Bradshaw, born into wealth, and who has spent his life doing well through connections and knowing which palms to grease.

At a critical juncture in his life, he seems to turn his back on his material trappings, and becomes absorbed in atoning for an incident from his past.

The book touches on some of the ethical questions raised in this blog recently – such as: can bad people do good things with their money? does the source of funds matter? should benevolence be without expectation of return? Do people just use philanthropy to buy reputation? and also – something we have not yet discussed, the Maimonides ladder of philanthropy.

Charles, the main character does not seem to fit comfortably in any of the steps of the ladder – he starts to give in seemingly inappropriate quantities, in cash, to people he meets randomly. He sets himself a target of cash to hand out every week. He has no strategy, no targeted recipients – he just seems to be happy to be getting rid of his wealth. It is not even clear if he is seeking to absolve himself of his guilt about his past, or his fortune, but just stumbles into a new way of being – which many of his recipients find confronting and offensive. His philanthropic actions are unplanned.

Many philanthropic advisors* these days talk about strategic giving, getting the best value for one’s philanthropic dollar and the importance of donors understanding where their money is going. Sometimes I wonder whether this is creating a self perpetuating need for philanthropic advice. On the one hand, many people speak highly of having a greater understanding of what they are doing, and more of an involvement in the organisations they support than when they just engaged in chequebook philanthropy – but this may not be the best way for everyone.

I sometimes also feel that the industry of philanthropy can intimidate people who want to participate and contribute, but might feel that they are not “at that same level of giving” and can not do so at the same scale. Tracey Gary’s book which I mentioned recently offers those maybe not so wealthy potential philanthropists some ideas about how to structure and order their giving without for professionals advice.  It has a series of exercises which help readers find their own comfort level with philanthropic support, and understand their own desires and motivations in engaging with the broader community through philanthropy.

Prior to Charles’ crisis he gave because his accountant told him he should, and his wife determined the best recipients for their funds. Is tax minimisation a bad thing? Should people be rewarded and honoured for their charitable giving? – or should they aspire to the highest level on the ladder – that of giving anonymously and to anonymous recipients?

This brings us to the whole question of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet’s giving pledge calling on America’s 40 wealthiest people to stand up and be counted by committing a percentage of their net worth to good causes (actually to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which will decide what the good causes are). Do you consider this to be a “high” form of giving? or is anonymous better?

Many people who make large contributions in Australia are starting to out themselves as philanthropists whereas in the past they might have given anonymously. Part of their rationale is to encourage their peers to also donate – Allan Myers said as much when he gave $6 million to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2008.

What do you think about the motivations for philanthropic giving and acts of charity? (Charity seems such an old fashioned word these days). Does the motive matter?

The Philanthropist is a great read as a tale of several dreadfully unlikeable self absorbed characters who manage to avoid being stereotyped. Its main focus is on the relationships between parents and children (particularly fathers and sons) so if you are looking for a deep examination of philanthropy and how the wealthy view it you won’t find it here. I found it hard to put down – and greatly enjoyed the Melbourne setting.

For more about the book have a look at Alice Robinson’s review for Crikey.

I hope this stimulates some more discussion about ethics in giving. Looking forward to hearing from you.

I will be having a look at another recent philanthropy themed fiction title The Ask: A Novel in the next little while.  Any other fiction philanthropy suggestions are welcome.

* the “industry” of philanthropic advice will be discussed at length in a later post


additional comment March 2011. Just found an interesting post about accepting “dirty money” by Michael Selzer in PhilanTopic which adds some depth to the question of ethics in philanthropy.

About ozphilanthropy

#Philanthropy. #arts Posts by Sharon Nathani, PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne focussing on philanthropic funders of the arts. Sharon's study is supported through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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2 Responses to The Philanthropist by John Tesarsch

  1. Misha says:

    Summary of Tesarsch’s book much appreciated. This blog is starting to mine the deeper philosophical aspects of giving as well as the practical! Perhaps separate pages on theory and praxis might help to differentiate between the general considerations and the more immediate issues of , say supporting the arts or education.

    Your comments took me back a couple of generations to the work of Titmuss in The Gift Relationship. In this book he considered the motivations and outcomes of the differing blood donation models in the US (then paid) and the UK (voluntary).

    Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) notes that Titmuss found that the British system had
    higher-quality blood (as measured by the likelihood of recipients contracting hepatitis from transfusions), less blood waste, and fewer blood shortages at hospitals. Titmuss also attacked the U.S. system as inequitable, arguing that the rich exploited the poor and desperate by buying their blood. He concluded that an altruistic blood procurement system is both more ethical and more efficient than a market system, and recommended that the market be kept out of blood donation to protect the “right to give.”

    Titmuss’ assumption that voluntary donation was altruistically motivated, with no consideration of personal gain soon came under attack from the socio-biologists. Robert Ardrey, the first populariser of this area, took the ‘fundamentalist’ evolutionary approach: a significantly recurring behaviour must have evolutionary value – hence behaviour described as altruistic is in essence selfish as it contributes to species survival.

    Whatever the true biology of the matter is, altruism – and donation, gifting, occurs.

    On the practical level how can those concerned with its exploitation (because that is what it is, is it not?) best enable it.

    On this level, in a recent paper (How Donors Choose Charities , 2010) from the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy of the University of Kent, Beth Breeze notes that:

    four non’needs’based criteria commonly influence donors’ decision-making:

    1 Donors’ tastes, preferences and passions, acquired as a result of an individual’s social experiences. These motivate many giving decisions, even among donors who perceive themselves to be motivated by meeting needs.

    2 Donors’ personal and professional backgrounds, which shape their ‘philanthropic autobiographies’ and influence their choice of beneficiaries.

    3 Donors’ perceptions of charity competence, notably the efficiency with which they are believed to use their money, often judged on the basis of the quality and quantity of direct mail. [!!]

    4 Donors’ desire to have a personal impact, such that their contribution makes a difference and is not ‘drowned out’ by other donors and government funding.

    Yet the methods used to encourage donations tend to assume that philanthropy depends on objective
    assessments of need rather than on donors’ enthusiasms. In fact, Breeze concludes, much giving could be described as ‘taste-based’ rather than ‘needs-based’.

    • Another thoughtful response – much appreciated and the reference to Titmuss and how skittlebup would know this makes sense to me now that I see he was writing about social policy in The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy

      The other text referred to was The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom I will try to get hold of this to have a good read and respond.

      Click here for the How Donors Choose report which I note is based on interviews with 60 donors (which I would consider a small sample) all of whom are registered with the Charities Aid Foundation. The report states While CAF account holders are not representative in terms of income, age or geographical location (they tend to be richer, older and disproportionately from the south‑east), they are, by definition, proactive and committed donors whose charitable acts are likely to be more typical of those that sustain charities’ voluntary income.

      The binary breakdown of choices – people/animals, domestic/interational, charities with low/high overheads, personal interest/lack of personal interest is also interesting.

      Have a look at the report and let me know what you think and whether it would apply here – as a regular catchcry I hear here is that “we are different to the UK and the US” – Australia has its own culture of giving and what makes us tick in philanthropy is different to overseas.

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