"When I talk to young people who seem destined for great success, I tell them to forget about charities and giving. Concentrate on your family and getting rich…People who do not make money will never become philanthropists. When rich people reach 50 and are beginning to slow down is the time to begin engaging them in philanthropy."
So declared hedge fund manager Robert Wilson in a recent email exchange with Bill Gates, before he died less than two months ago. At the time, Gates was encouraging Wilson to sign The Giving Pledge and join a host of other wealthy philanthropists in a vow to give away half of their assets before they died. Wilson, who was in his eighties, declined.
Despite the cold and somewhat harsh nature of his response, Wilson should be commended for revealing (with no lack of candor) how most Americans actually approach philanthropy. We may disagree with the not-giving-to-charity-until-we-are-old-and-rich part, but most of us live under the mindset that the majority of our philanthropy will come later in life after we have achieved a certain level of material security (however subjectively determined).
Approaching philanthropy in this compartamentalized way is a serious problem for multiple reasons. Apart from the obvious fact that there is no guarantee we will live to see 50, much more that we will be financially secure enough to "give back" by that point, pushing our philanthropy off into the future diminishes the self-actualization we are able to realize in the present. Studies consistently show that giving and happiness are closely related.
But there is a deeper, more nuanced problem with Wilson’s remarks. They reflect a mentality that understands philanthropy only in terms of giving and not making.
We cannot give what we do not have. A holistic view of philanthropy takes into account both how we obtain our resources and how we expend our resources. Philanthropy is both together; one is not possible without the other, and yet we regularly act as if philanthropy is only about the money we give away.
This fragmented view of philanthropy risks compromising the values we claim to stand for. Wilson would have us believe that it is perfectly consistent to make wealth one's chief aim during the first half of life, only to change that aim to philanthropy in the second half of life. But the values inherent in these two pursuits are disjointed, if not totally opposed to one another. Making wealth our highest priority (or at least a higher priority than giving) will inevitably cause us to act in ways that are antithetical to "the love of humanity".
Wendell Berry knows this viscerally. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, Berry recounts the story of his grandfather, a small Kentucky farmer who spent his working life at the mercy of the American Tobacco Company (ATC), which was founded by James B. Duke. The ATC, as Berry put it, “had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers.” This made life very hard for the Berry family and countless other tobacco farmers across the U.S. But it also made the ATC wildly successful, and its owner extraordinarily wealthy. James B. Duke, just like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the other robber barons at the turn of the 20th century, became a prominent philanthropist, most notable for establishing The Duke Endowment at Duke University.
James B. Duke’s philanthropy was made possible because of the way he ran his organization, and American tobacco farmers were marginalized because of those practices. The ATC’s treatment of its farmers – its suppliers – allowed for outsized profits. As the company grew, its massive market presence created a cycle of dependency from which small, independent American tobacco farmers could not escape. James B. Duke was “completely ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy.”
In other words, what James B. Duke failed to grasp was that philanthropy is equal parts how we make our money and how we give our money. Making money and giving money comprise two sides of the same coin, and the values that apply to one side apply equally to the other.
Philanthropy isn’t something one chooses to “do” at a particular point in life, as Robert Wilson would have us believe. The very nature of having a job is philanthropy. Sure, it may work out that the majority of our life is spent making money, with only the latter part spent on giving that money to worthy causes, but that doesn’t mean our life is any less “philanthropic” in the earlier stages of life. The same values ought to govern both halves of life.
If this is true, our first act of philanthropy concerns how we make our money. True philanthropy embraces values of altruism and love and justice. If we are to live lives of integrity, these values must govern how we make our money. It doesn’t matter if we are the head of our own company or a line worker in a large manufacturing firm, all of us must ask basic questions about how we are getting paid and whether it accords with our first principles.
This means taking an interest in how our employer generates revenue, and questioning whether its practices pass basic standards of public justice. Is it clear, for instance, that people or animals or the environment are/is being exploited in the process? Is the company marketing its products or services in a way that intends to mislead consumers? Is the company prioritizing shareholder return at the expense of its employees' welfare? These are questions each of us has to wrestle with. Each person will have his or her own standard for what is and is not acceptable, and that is just as it should be - but this sort of self-examination and inquiry must take place if we are to be consistent in our values.
We may hear about Wendell Berry’s grandfather and have great empathy for him, and even some level of disdain for the American Tobacco Company and its practices; but when it comes down to it, if we were an employee of the ATC, would we have the gumption to speak up on behalf of those exploited farmers? Would we have the courage to quit our stable job on moral principle, in hopes of working for a company that better aligns with our standards of goodness and justice? Or would we rationalize the ATC’s practices to quiet our conscience?
If we do find that our employer is acting contrary to basic standards of justice, it doesn't necessarily mean that we should quit (for if we quit there may be no one left to speak up against those practices). The point here is that if we claim to be philanthropic, we must allow those values to permeate every part of our life. This means being advocates for justice and goodness no matter where we are.
Aristotle said that wealth does not bring about excellence but excellence makes wealth good for all men. If we live with the aim of “doing good to all” (or “being excellent to each other”, as two sages of rock once said), which is the true end of all philanthropy, then we will allow that standard to govern our actions in all seasons of life.