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Here's the conversation in my head this morning:

ABSOLUTELY NO-ONE: What has really been missing this week is some thoughts about the Notre Dame tragedy & what it says about philanthropy...

ME: Just back from holiday- did someone say THREAD?!
Joking aside, I know plenty of people have already opined on this. But I’ve been on holiday & couldn’t bring myself to bore my family with my thoughts, so please cut me some slack.

Though fair warning- the thread is fairly long...
Firstly- whilst there’s obviously a positive story about the level of generosity in response to a shared tragedy, I’m more interested in the criticism that’s come at the same time (natch).

And i think it’s important to distinguish a few distinct points being made. (1/)
One main criticism seems to be that while scale of response may be admirable in its own right, in the wider context it raises questions about why other causes (particularly those involving obvious human suffering) don’t elicit similar sums. (2/)
This can be parsed further, into criticisms that:
-Philanthropy in general is the problem, as it’s irrational and dictated by emotional factors
-Arts/culture in particular are the problem, because they are ‘easier to fundraise for’ but have less ‘moral worth’ (3/)
The other main criticism is that elite donors who have given substantial sums to Notre Dame are not altruistic and shouldn’t be praised because they derive a lot of personal benefit in form of:
-overt thanks
-social status
-tax relief (4/)
Let’s take the “giving is irrational” point first. Basically this is pretty much a fair cop, and highlights what for me is the fundamental tension at the heart of philanthropy… (5/)
At the micro level, philanthropy is about the individual, voluntary choices of donors. Thus it’s subject to all sorts of emotional factors/unconscious bias etc - which are highly relevant in context of people responding to a much-loved and iconic building burning down. (6/)
However at an aggregate/macro level philanthropy is a means of redistribution within society (alongside the state & the market), and thus we understandably want it to be rationally allocated. (7/)
Unfortunately the micro and macro don’t always match up well, hence philanthropy is not necessarily responsive to need.

The important qn here is: Do we see this as a failing of philanthropy, or of our own expectations? (8/)
Now, plenty of people have seen it as a failing of philanthropy and been very annoyed by it. Like William Rathbone, for instance: (9/)
Or the "Scientific Charity" movement of the early C20th in the US, as described by Bremner (10/):
It's also been a major gripe for fundraisers, who have long bemoaned the fact that donors’ emotive response to disasters outweighs their considered response to ongoing problems (quote's from my book, quoting Owen's "History of English Philanthropy 1660-1960"): (11/)
But arguably this just highlights the difference between philanthropy (as the aggregation of individual donor choices) and taxation (which attempts a rational, needs-based redistribution of assets). (12/)
Both have strengths and weaknesses- philanthropy, for example, is much less good than taxation at guaranteeing equity; but may be able to leverage additional resources through giving people agency & drawing on broader range of motivations. (13/)
So in some circumstances, the emotional pull of philanthropy might give it power and value above and beyond the cold logic of taxation and redistribution.

Discuss... <puts on tin helmet ⛑️> (14/)
In terms of the particular point about arts & culture vs human needs, this is definitely not a new criticism- as evidenced by this 1903 Puck cartoon mocking Carnegie and Rockefeller for building libraries and museums rather than addressing poverty & illness: (15/)
Or this 1901 one, giving Carnegie more grief on the same lines, but with a Christmassy feel (16/):
The thrust of a lot of current criticisms re Notre Dame seems similarly to be: “why don’t all these rich people who have given to that do the same for global poverty?”

But whilst there is an important point here, it also elides some important distinctions. (17/)
When it comes to Notre Dame, we are talking about a finite, definable issue that is largely independent of complex human factors & can clearly be solved with money. Unlike e.g. poverty, which is complex, systemic and potentially unbounded. (18/)
Of course, it's also true that wealthy people often like old buildings. And those old buildings do have the advantage that they are far less likely to highlight structural inequality issues than people are - so they make the power dynamics in philanthropy less awkward. (19/)
Obviously that’s not an excuse & doesn’t mean philanthropy should ignore poverty. (History suggests opposite has tended to be the case anyway).

Just that repairing a building & solving poverty are v different fundraising asks and require different sorts of philanthropy. (20/)
In terms of whether it is right that donors to Notre Dame get rewarded for their gifts, this brings up a whole heap of issues around reciprocity, altruism, the psychology of gift giving and the justification for philanthropic tax incentives.

("Hooray", i hear you cry...) (21/)
On the qn of gratitude/overt recognition: this has definitely been an important motivating factor for philanthropy throughout history.

E.g. This thing I wrote about the C19th brewing industry using philanthropy to burnish their public image: medium.com/@cafonline/mee… (22/)
However, I’m not sure philanthropy is a sure-fire way to score PR points at this moment in time, as the general mood is far more critical (in many case rightly so, although there’s plenty of unwarranted cynicism too). (23/)
(Ironically the volume of articles bemoaning the fact that donors are getting lauded for their acts of generosity increasingly seems to outweigh the number of articles actually lauding them, but that’s by the bye…) (24/)
On the question of taxation- hackles have particularly been raised by the suggestion that not only would elite French donors get existing tax breaks, but that they these should be increased.

A few thoughts on that before I leave. (25/)
1st, my usual disclaimer that I don’t see philanthropy and tax justice as a zero-sum game. Paying the tax that you owe is a vital part of keeping philanthropy legitimate

(Though I’m not naive enough to believe this isn’t an issue in plenty of cases). (26/)
2nd- major donors calling for increased tax breaks on their own giving is rarely a great look. Particularly not in the context of the immediate aftermath of an emotive national disaster & against a febrile political backdrop. (27/)
Third- Governments offering differential tax breaks for donations to specific causes is a bad idea IMHO, as it goes against what I take to be the most compelling justification for offering tax incentives for philanthropy. (28/)
I.e. That they represent a generalised subsidy for the maintenance of a healthy civil society, rather than a specific subsidy for any public good that the state would otherwise have to provide. (As argued convincingly, to my mind, in @robreich's work) (29/)
4th- In terms of increasing the incentive value: whatever the ethics or politics, it’s probably just bad economics. Most evidence suggests donor behaviour is highly inelastic in response to such changes (i.e. you prob wouldn’t get more donations). (30/)
5th (and finally)- The other thing worth noting is that France has a credit, rather than deduction-based system of tax breaks for philanthropy. So everyone gets the same value of incentive, regardless of tax rate (i.e. there is no “upside-down effect”). (31/)
Which is not to say that questions of how to justify tax breaks on donations aren’t important in France- just that some of the US-derived criticisms don’t really fit very neatly, and I haven’t seen that point being made yet which I thought odd. (32/)
Right- that’s definitely enough.

Long and short of it is that Notre Dame story contains immense amount to unpack in terms of philanthropy issues, but a lot of nuance seems in danger of getting lost on the ideological battleground.
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