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