Giving With Purpose: A Pedagogical Framing and Selection Issue Dictating Outcomes

“The Giving With Purpose online course is modeled after a class that has been taught at more than 30 universities that allows students to give away $10,000 after evaluating several nonprofits and learning about effective giving. This online offering allowed Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady foundation to expand the classes without adding staff to manage the program.”

Yes, it’s true, Warren Buffett is involved in a course that will allow the nearly 4,000 registered students to participate in giving away $100,000 of his sister’s money. On one level–this is laudable. Buffett (and his sister) share the goal of completely redistributing their wealth before they die. Buffett has made headlines regarding the obligation of the well-off to earnestly participate in the redistribution of wealth. This, in my estimation, is a “good thing.” And the course too is a good thing–it will cover the host of issues involved in choosing ways to redistribute wealth through non-profits.

But let’s step back. The course is on the redistribution of wealth (broadly) and makes the a priori assumption that the method for this redistribution, to “meet the needs of our society” as Dr. Riccio of Northeastern notes in the article, is through non-profits.

If we return to some of the popular debate prior to last November’s presidential election, we are faced with candidate Mitt Romney serving as a sort of symbol for the 1%, the much maligned “selfish class” that has done little for the majority of Americans (or the world) while indoctrinating the masses to a neo-liberal orthodoxy and continuing the accumulation of personal wealth. Romney had an indirect but effective foil during the year he was in the limelight: Buffett.

In an issue of the New Yorker from last Fall, the popular rhetoric of Romney’s participation in charity and personal giving was aptly characterized as a “self-imposed taxation of the rich.” (I’m paraphrasing), where the recipients of beneficence are the pet-passions of the well-to-do (Forbes thinks this is great: and by my own extension, not necessarily in the best interest of society at large.

Returning to the buffet…sorry, Buffett…and this MOOC, the foil to Romneyism seems less clear. Is this not also self-imposed taxation? Sure, Buffett’s taxation is more lauded by the progressively-minded and he has certainly been a proponent of other wealthy folks recognizing their financial social responsibility. But it still retains the ilk of pet-passion.

So who handed the rich wealth accumulators to be the deciders for what is good for society. Being endowed with riches doesn’t indicate that one is endowed with knowledge or even an appropriate intellectual framework to think about giving. After all, a critical read of capitalist economies would indicate that such philanthropists are repairing with one hand what they broke with another. After all, their wealth was accumulated from somewhere, and though this may be in-keeping with the American dream and the Protestant ethic, the rules of competition presuppose winners and losers. Is it not ironic that those who win then turn around to fund the well-being of those who have lost?

According to Riccio:

“Charitable gifts should be relevant to whatever people are passionate about, Riccio said. But this class will teach people how to judge what kind of impact a nonprofit makes and how well-run the charity is based on how much it spends on administration”

But I disagree. The meaning of giving isn’t being fully theorized here. In fact, there’s an obsession over the mechanics. How far is my contribution going to further my interest and, by extension, my utility. This is the same mentality in which wealth-accumulators have proven to be so expert and yet it fails to recognize the opportunity cost of this form of charity and moreover, the economic system in which they are embedded that enables them to give at all.

If the goal is to choose efficient charities, then the market of charities will rise to meet this demand. But suppose the system of charity is inefficient–where is the debate on this front? Alternatives to charity and philanthropy?

If the well-off continue to fund the passions of the well-off, should we not expect a furtherance of their interests and a continued gap between rich and poor?

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