Tainted Money Is Better Than None for Struggling Charities

Tainted Money Is Better Than None for Struggling Charities

One of the most celebrated passages in the Bible occurs in St. Matthew’s gospel. A rich young man asked Jesus, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Jesus responds, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” Alas, charity has always been easier said than done. “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful,” Matthew’s text continues, “for he had great possessions.”

Throughout the succeeding two millenniums, the wealthiest inhabitants of the Christian and non-Christian worlds have been groping for compromises with such teaching. Many give some fraction of their riches to the poor or to good causes, maybe to secure some fraction of eternal life, or more plausibly perhaps in hopes of being remembered as decent citizens.   

There is also a tradition of people and businesses that amass wealth by dubious means seeking to atone through acts of generosity. In Britain, it was long understood that all but the most conspicuously crooked charitable donors could go a long way to ensuring knighthoods, and even peerages, by giving a million or three.

Today, however, philanthropy is under the microscope. A rising chorus of skeptical voices is raised against allowing rich people or companies to purchase respectability. Yet many good causes, especially arts institutions, have suffered crippling financial losses from the Covid-19 pandemic, which can only get worse if they are forced to adopt the code of ethics proposed by those who deal in shame rather than solutions.  

In the U.S., left-wing critics denounce so-called philanthrocapitalism, whereby some among the vastly wealthy seek a reputation for generosity, while at the same time gaining vast income-tax breaks or retaining control of money they have supposedly given away.

Garry Jenkins, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, suggests that charitable foundations funded by big businessmen are becoming “increasingly directive, controlling, metric-focused and business-oriented.” He highlights the danger of a takeover of charities by commercial interests which may be less committed to the public good than they would have you believe.

Meanwhile, a legal firestorm assails the Sackler family, which for decades was praised for international philanthropy until it was noticed that much of their wealth derived from Purdue Pharma Inc.’s manufacture and sale of addictive opioids.

Critics are unimpressed by the Sacklers’ donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Gallery, American Museum of Natural History, British National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, Kew Botanical Gardens, New York University’s Langone Medical Center and other institutions. If all their benefactions are added together, say Sackler foes, they amount to only a mouse’s portion of the $11 billion they are estimated to have amassed.

In Britain, the actor Mark Rylance is among prominent lobbyists for Extinction Rebellion, a green advocacy group demanding, among much else, that Sadler’s Wells ballet company cease accepting money from Barclays Bank, which it describes as Europe’s largest financier of “fossil fuel extraction.” Barclays’ cash is being used to subsidize tickets of just 10 pounds for young fans to attend performances.

Likewise, the British Museum is targeted for its partnership with oil company BP Plc., and the London Science Museum faces criticism for allowing Royal Dutch Shell Plc. to sponsor an exhibition on climate change. Research into historic philanthropists with links to slavery has proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic. Oxford University is racked by controversy over a statue of the 19th-century mining tycoon Cecil Rhodes, who after a lifetime of exploiting Africa and Africans created the great scholarship scheme that bears his name.

Honore de Balzac exaggerated somewhat when he observed, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” But among the participants in a dinner party conversation I heard recently was a woman, heiress to millions made by her late father, who demanded with a shrug, “Is any great fortune made by moral means?” With heroic restraint, the rest of us held back from discussing her dad’s wealth, created through property development and ruthless asset-stripping. Yet she has been one of Britain’s leading philanthropists, responsible for raising and distributing tens of millions to good causes.

It was ever thus. In 1888, the brother of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel died in France. A French newspaper, muddling family identities, published an obituary denouncing the dead man for his invention of dynamite and other explosives. Alfred read this and, the story goes, was appalled at the notion that he might go down in history attached to such a reputation. Whatever the true impetus, he set about an extravagant program of good works, prominent among them the annual prizes that have been largely successful in sanitizing its honor.

Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American industrialist, is likewise remembered as a great philanthropist. His book “The Gospel of Wealth” asserted that rich men should consider themselves mere trustees of their fortunes for future generations. Believing that access to learning is key to opportunity, he founded some 2,500 libraries. Carnegie’s later life was exemplary, but nobody made a fortune in steel and railroads during the late 19th century while playing Mr. Nice Guy, least of all to those who labored on the tracks or in the foundries.

It was the same story with Henry Ford, who to his credit assured his employees the unheard-of wage of $5 a day, and promoted hiring black workers. Yet he was also a rabid anti-Semite and ruthless in crushing unionization efforts. In 1936, his son, Edsel, created the Ford Foundation, which has since funded a host of liberal causes. It remains a nice question whether those good deeds balance the dark side of Henry Ford’s record. The same can be said of John D. Rockefeller’s legacy.

Some very rich people, of course, are almost indisputably virtuous. In Britain, the Sainsbury family, with a fortune built on supermarkets, have a long history of public generosity, and indeed of being good people.

The Giving Pledge, established in 2010, is a shared commitment among the ultra-wealthy to give away most of their fortunes with a vision of making the world a better place. (Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg L.P., is a signatory.)    

Contrarily, most large public institutions in the world have a share of buildings, galleries and stages named for questionable benefactors, some of whom have been lucky to escape jail terms. I have heard it said of a big patron of London arts: “When he was getting started, he didn’t hire people to break rivals’ arms. He did it himself.”

Yet is it not better that all but the dirtiest pounds and dollars should be spent for the public good, rather than hoarded? Instead of attacking banks and other controversial donors, leftist lobbyists might do well to shift some of their anger toward those rich people — including some popular idols of sport and screen — who keep entire fortunes locked in their piggy banks. Many do nothing conspicuously bad with their wealth, but nothing unselfish, either.

But the critics prefer more convenient villains. Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company two years ago announced, sanctimoniously and under pressure from some actors including Rylance, that it would reject further sponsorship from BP. Yet so long as most of the world depends on fossil fuels to keep our economies afloat, it seems hypocritical and unhelpful for a public body to reject oil companies’ cash. Most of us want to help save the planet. A few decades hence, Shell and BP may well have become history. But here and now, these are legitimate businesses supplying a product that is still indispensable to mankind.   

In general, legislatures and courts, rather than the boards of public bodies, should pass judgment on sinning corporations and tycoons. Of course, no respectable institution should accept donations from the likes of a Jeffrey Epstein, and it is understandable that some cultural centers are removing the Sackler name from their buildings. Very bad people should not be able to conceal ugly history beneath a lick of gold paint.  

But if we refuse to permit the legitimate rich, or their corporations, to purchase a morsel of redemption through philanthropy, who will be the winners? Only their rich offspring, shareholders and the builders of fancy yachts. A wealthy friend said to me in his last years, “I notice my friends getting nicer.” I responded: “Of course they are, because they are no longer clawing their way up the greasy pole. Instead, they are trying to get right with their Maker.”

Is that a bad thing? We not-so-rich citizens may relished the line in Matthew that follows the passage above: Jesus asserted that a camel may pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man may enter into the kingdom of God. Those of us still above ground do not yet know if this is true, but most people recognize that if we embrace capitalism, we should applaud some of its winners, and especially those willing, such as Carnegie and some of his latter-day successors, to put something back.     

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.