by Philip Rojc for Inside Philanthropy

It was the billionaire news of July. Space-racing tycoons: a drama of vaunting ambitions and phallic symbolism culminating in a back-on-Earth press conference by the biggest billionaire of them all, clad in a jumpsuit and a cowboy hat.

Jeff Bezos’ 10-minute space flight coincided with the release of $400 million to charity—half to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and $100 million apiece to Van Jones and José Andrés to do with what they will. It’s a sum that more than exceeds the yearly grantmaking of all but the heftiest foundations, and one gets the sense that Bezos gave it away on a whim. It’s just one-500th of his fortune, after all.

All told, the “billionaire space race” and its associated pageantry turned out to be a public relations misstep, adding to a rising tide of frustration with the wealthiest among us, regardless of flashy philanthropic announcements that may have earned them accolades in a different era.

Critics of plutocracy increasingly deride the notion of a “good billionaire” as a contradiction in terms, a poor facade concealing structural failings that underpin an objectively ridiculous reality: Several dozen Americans control more wealth than over 100 million others.

If we accept that giving can indeed challenge power rather than buttress it, what, then, gives critiques such potency? It’s less the fact that these broadsides are grounded in a full appraisal of how philanthropy operates, and more that they’re based on how philanthropy is perceived. And that’s often a less-than-pretty picture.

Compared with the reams of data collected on donor behavior, we still don’t have a lot of great quantitative insight into how the general public perceives charitable givers and the nonprofit sector. It appears that a large proportion of casual observers view philanthropy as nothing less than a tax avoidance and public relations mechanism for the elite, one that produces, at best, a few good side effects along the way.

Many readers will strenuously object to that characterization, but it doesn’t change the fact that criticism of philanthropy draws heavily on that narrative, painting a picture of bloated nonprofits and highly paid consultants offering legitimacy and moral cover in exchange for a cut of the capitalists’ haul. This is a real problem for the nonprofit sector, and one that will only get worse as the public grows increasingly angry at the antics of the Bezoses and Bransons of the world.

In the end, billionaire philanthropy will always be a moral grey space, loaded with contradiction and ambivalence. Whether it’s the size of their fortunes, how their wealth was accumulated, or how little they’re contributing to the public coffers, there are plenty of valid ways to criticize the richest among us.

But even if these fortunes shouldn’t exist, the fact is that they do, and something must be done with them. Yes, philanthropy often serves a PR function for industry moguls, but it can also serve as a release valve, or even as a weapon against structural inequities. 

You can read more of Philip’s analysis here:

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