Students on a theater trip in Iceland.


Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better

University Room: David T. McGovern Grand Salon (C-104)
David T. McGovern Grand Salon (C-104) | 6, rue du Colonel Combes 75007
Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - 17:30

Philanthropy, Power, and Democracy

Philanthropy is often hailed as a civic response to excessive inequalities. Private aid flows play a major role in North-South relations, and with the “Giving Pledge”, billionaires promise to give back to society. Can there be genuine and effective altruism? Critics warn that philanthropy is an exercise of power that may undermine democracy, as public policy is being replaced by private initiatives.

This spring, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies is inviting two leading scholars to discuss the relationship between philanthropy, power, and democracy:

  • Theodore Lechterman from the Justitia Amplificata Centre for Advanced Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, whose Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton had focused on “Donors’ Democracy: Private Philanthropy and Political Morality”, will talk about “Famine, Affluence, and Democracy: The Politics of Effective Altruism” on 25 February 2019, 18h30 in C-102. Find out more.
  • Rob Reich, director of the Center for Ethics in Society and faculty co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, whose new book is fresh off the press, will discuss it with us “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better” 3 April 2019, 17h30 in C-104 (co-sponsored by the Civic Media Lab). 

The events are open to the public - external guests must notify their attendance at least 24h before via email to


“Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”

Is philanthropy, by its very nature, a threat to today’s democracy? Though we may laud wealthy individuals who give away their money for society’s benefit, Just Giving shows how such generosity not only isn’t the unassailable good we think it to be but might also undermine democratic values and set back aspirations of justice. Big philanthropy is often an exercise of power, the conversion of private assets into public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable, often perpetual, and lavishly tax-advantaged. The affluent—and their foundations—reap vast benefits even as they influence policy without accountability. And small philanthropy, or ordinary charitable giving, can be problematic as well. Charity, it turns out, does surprisingly little to provide for those in need and sometimes worsens inequality.

These outcomes are shaped by the policies that define and structure philanthropy. When, how much, and to whom people give is influenced by laws governing everything from the creation of foundations and nonprofits to generous tax exemptions for donations of money and property. Rob Reich asks: What attitude and what policies should democracies have concerning individuals who give money away for public purposes? Philanthropy currently fails democracy in many ways, but Reich argues that it can be redeemed. Differentiating between individual philanthropy and private foundations, the aims of mass giving should be the decentralization of power in the production of public goods, such as the arts, education, and science. For foundations, the goal should be what Reich terms “discovery,” or long-time-horizon innovations that enhance democratic experimentalism. Philanthropy, when properly structured, can play a crucial role in supporting a strong liberal democracy.

Just Giving investigates the ethical and political dimensions of philanthropy and considers how giving might better support democratic values and promote justice.

About the speaker

Rob Reich is professor of political science and, by courtesy, professor of philosophy and at the Graduate School of Education, at Stanford University. He is the director of the Center for Ethics in Society and faculty co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review), both at Stanford University. Most recently, he is the author of the book, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better (Princeton University Press) and the recent Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (edited with Chiara Cordelli and Lucy Bernholz). His current work focuses on ethics and technology, and he is editing a new volume called Digital Technology and Democratic Theory (with Lucy Bernholz and Helene Landemore). He is the recipient of multiple teaching awards and is a board member of and the magazine Boston Review.