How to Cover the One Percent

Billionaires Bill Gates and Carlos Slim at the opening of a new research facility for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Texcoco, Mexico, February 2013
Henry Romero/Reuters
Billionaires Bill Gates and Carlos Slim at the opening of a new research facility for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Texcoco, Mexico, February 2013

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As the concentration of wealth in America has grown, so has the scale of philanthropy. Today, that activity is one of the principal ways in which the superrich not only “give back” but also exert influence, yet it has not received the attention it deserves. As I have previously tried to show, digital technology offers journalists new ways to cover the world of money and power in America,1 and that’s especially true when it comes to philanthropy.

Over the last fifteen years, the number of foundations with a billion dollars or more in assets has doubled, to more than eighty. A significant portion of that money goes to such traditional causes as universities, museums, hospitals, and local charities. Needless to say, such munificence does much good. The philanthropic sector in the United States is far more dynamic than it is in, say, Europe, due in part to the tax deductions allowed under US law for charitable giving. Unlike in Europe, where cultural institutions depend largely on state support, here they rely mainly on private donors.

The tax write-offs for such contributions, however, mean that this giving is subsidized by US taxpayers. Every year, an estimated $40 billion is diverted from the public treasury through charitable donations. That makes accountability for them all the more pressing. So does the fact that many of today’s philanthropists are more activist than those in the past. A number are current or former hedge fund managers, private equity executives, and tech entrepreneurs who, having made their fortunes on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, are now seeking to apply their know-how to social problems. Rather than simply write checks for existing institutions, these “philanthrocapitalists,” as they are often called, aggressively seek to shape their operations.

When donors approach a nonprofit, “they’re more likely to say not ‘How can I help you?’ but ‘Here’s my agenda,’” Nicholas Lemann, the former dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, told me. Mainstream news organizations haven’t caught on to this new activism, he said, adding that most of them are into covering “the ‘giving pledge,’” by which the rich commit to giving away at least half their wealth in their lifetime. David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website that tracks this world, says that “philanthropy is having as much influence as campaign contributions, but campaign contributions get all the attention. The imbalance is stunning to me.”

Callahan, the author of Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (2010), created Inside Philanthropy in…


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