Why dying rich is a disgrace

By ELENA DOUGLAS

This article was originally published in The Deal magazine in The Australian newspaper.

Philanthropy is as old as Western civilisation itself. The first use of the word, which means “love of humankind”, is attributed to the Greek playwright Aeschylus around 460 BC. In Prometheus Bound, the spirit of philanthropy animates Prometheus, the divine being who created humankind in Greek mythology, when he is moved to defy the gods and give fire to his creatures. This gift — symbolising all culture, including writing, arts, sciences, medicine, philosophy, architecture and agriculture — saved humankind from the wrath of Zeus, along with the gift of optimism, the belief that things can be better.

With these two gifts, the species Prometheus created would be complete. This story embodies the Classical Greek belief that humans, unique among animals, are capable of self-creation through culture. Prometheus gave us the power to complete our own creation through culture, learning and civilisation itself. He loved this creativity, which is essential to being human.

Philanthropists experience a similar awareness of the joy of creativity through giving to institutions and communities, especially when the giving relationship endures. When well practised, philanthropy brings a sense of purpose and expression to its practitioners that has few comparisons. In particular, it benefits wealthy families, who receive a shared sense of purpose and an experience of life and community outside their own context that might otherwise not be possible. It has provided continuity for family tradition often through history and can give the next generation a sense of meaning.

Those new to philanthropy often take a similar path: when they begin, it is hard to know where to put their energy and attention and how to get the most impact from their money. Sometimes it can take years to develop the mature and productive partnerships that result in the best work.

The practice of good philanthropy is as much a craft as a science: it has rigour, and is learned through practical, not theoretical, means. Only when a philanthropic relationship is pursued with intention and for impact can institutions, organisations and new endeavours make the best use of philanthropy, one of the more innovative and less restricted sources of funding.

Great philanthropy has a pure focus, and often a sense of place. The Medicis, great patrons of the arts and humanism who gave us Renaissance Florence, are a singular example. These bankers, who emerged as a great philanthropic family in the 15th century, commissioned many of the most famous works by Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo Da Vinci. They continued to give to their city over generations. Philanthropy, then, is the gift that keeps on giving to every tourist, every visitor to Florence.

Great philanthropy transforms societies. In Australia we have seen the revival of Hobart by the creation of MONA. In the mid-19th century, the creation of our sandstone universities was a transformative gift to the nation. William Charles Wentworth, who founded Sydney University, imagined it would give “the opportunity for the child of every class to become great and useful in the destinies of this country”.

The arrival of a university, hospital, museum or library is a signature moment in the life of any community.

The axis of good philanthropic practice is impact — the measurable clarity and visibility of the difference you are making. Andrew Carnegie, the great American industrialist and the founder of the modern philanthropic tradition, saw philanthropy as a model for responding to suffering by investing money to intervene in the root causes of poverty. Carnegie argued that those capable of making fortunes should donate that wealth to turn around the fortunes of others. He invested in people’s capacity to remake themselves with opportunity, funding thousands of institutes of learning and design, especially public libraries.

Australian local councils benefited from Carnegie’s building grants — the public library in Northcote, Melbourne, is a standing example; his library in Midland, Western Australia, was demolished.

In his Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie asserted that “he who dies rich dies disgraced”. This is the book that inspired Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to start the Giving Pledge. To date, 170 billionaires, including three Australians — Andrew and Nicola Forrest and Leonard Ainsworth — have pledged to give away half their money before they die.

Giving to the poor or the public good is a part of most human civilisations. — generosity, charity or the giving of alms can be traced back to Vedic times. In Judaism, tzedakah is about justice, and in this tradition the most noble form of giving is to give someone a job — the idea of a hand up, not a handout has ancient origins. Charitable giving through tithing is one of the five pillars of Islam, a practice called zakat. The Christian tradition of charity — caritas, Latin for love — inspired many institutions we recognise today: hospitals, universities, even hotels. These originated in the monasteries of the early Middle Ages, where loving strangers, as the Good Samaritan did, was essential.

Every generation brings its culture to the table in philanthropy and giving. Causes, campaigns and crusades take different forms through time and are influenced by place. But the humanitarian impulse is never extinguished and the brighter it shines, the healthier a society will be.