Written by Jessica van der Schalk
November 15, 2021

Philanthropy, private initiatives of the wealthy that support causes for the public good, has been a subject of criticism for years. The main points so far have been the following. First, the influence exerted on public affairs by those with large amounts of money is undemocratic, often depending on the personal whims of super-rich individuals. Furthermore, philanthropy can result in tax benefits, leading to constructions that are ultimately primarily intended to allocate money smartly, instead of helping good causes. What is more, some claim that the wealthy get rich at the expense of others and then take undeserved credit as patrons.

Recently, yet another issue was added to this list, resulting from a movement called “effective altruism” that was founded two decades ago by Australian ethicist Peter Singer, professor at Princeton University. In his work he reviews donations based on their effectiveness and by comparing them to other donations. This has given rise to organizations such as GiveWell or The Life You Can Save, which make it possible to evaluate how to donate most effectively. More and more private initiatives can therefore be criticized for indulging in so-called feel-good philanthropy, donating to causes without being able to explain why this particular cause is chosen over others and lacking proof that the money is even well-spent, leaving only one reason to donate: feeling good.

Burning questions:

  • Will effective altruism affect public opinion and direct funding to grand societal challenges such as famine, climate change or poverty, at the expense of “second-class problems” such as stray dogs or cultural poverty?
  • Will philanthropists still be motivated to give away large amounts of money if they can no longer select their preferred causes freely?