Philanthropy isn’t the golden ideal we might picture it to be

In philanthropy, a donation is not always without conditions

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An aged white man in a suit sits in front of a laptop. He is staring at the camera, and is fanning out a large number of bills in his hand.
Philanthropy is an easy way for the wealthy to mold their surroundings however they feel is best. Photo: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

By: Craig Allan, Peak Associate; Jacob Mattie, Opinions Editor

SFU’s business school goes by the name Beedie School of Business. It would be reasonable to assume Beedie is the name of a faculty member; similar to how the Maggie Benston Centre and Robert C. Brown Hall are named after former faculty of SFU. However, the school is named after Ryan and Keith Beedie, two former students. The reason their names adorn the program is because they gave a $22 million dollar “gift” — the largest in the school’s history. It came attached with the request that the school of business be renamed in their honour. This is the nature of philanthropy: while it signals that the wealthy are giving back to the community, there are often ulterior motives such as legacy preservation (and consequently advertisement) and tax evasion.

In Vancouver, the Carnegie Library in East Vancouver got its name from Arthur Carnegie, a New York City industrialist and known philanthropist. He believed only a few select people were entitled to wealth, and so he underpaid his workers, many of them children. Under his assumption that concentrated wealth — at the expense of his employees — was the best for development, buildings with his name were the true showing of his “guiding hand” to progress. Much like how “benevolent donations” changed how people perceived the Carnegie name, philanthropy was also used to soften the image of some of history’s most awful people. People like former Cincinnati Reds owner and noted racist Marge Schott, and the Sackler family — heads of Purdue Pharma and Pfizer — who are the main culprits of the opioid epidemic.

The problem with much philanthropy is that it is tax deductible. This means that money that could have gone to helping the houseless, or bringing down student debt were instead spent at the whims of the rich. Certainly, libraries and concert halls have value, but not enough to replace such things as social wellness programs.

Of course, philanthropy in and of itself is not always a bad thing. It can fund worthwhile causes which may not be on the radar of most people. However, the nature of philanthropy is that it gives even more influence to the rich. The layouts of museums, dorm rooms, and other social structures affect how we live, and how we establish our behavioural routines. When these are set by the wealthy — who have a vested interest in promoting or discouraging certain behaviours — this can become deeply problematic.

The issues inherent in capitalism are broad and complex, and will take a concerted effort to overcome. However, it’s important to realize that philanthropy is not helping. Rather than moving us towards a society in which we can all meet our basic needs, it affixes the role of the wealthy as our benefactors.