Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Does "Effective Altruism" Mean For The Arts?

Winslow Homer's Lost on the Grand Banks, for which Bill Gates paid $36 million in 1998
A recent interview in the Financial Times with Bill Gates, that was widely quoted and shared in the media, including this piece in Hyperallergic, reported his equating of giving to a museum with blinding people. Seriously. Essentially he was citing the work of ethicist Peter Singer, whose work has fostered a new "effective altruism" movement, and posing the question that if a significant gift could prevent illnesses that lead to blindness, was giving that money instead to build a new wing of a museum effectively blinding people? [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,” he says. “Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.”

Then in the recent issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a cover story (apologies to non-subscribers - this article is behind a paywall) and several sidebar stories explore the "effective altruism" movement fostered by Singer (given a big boost by a TED talk earlier this year). The story notes the growing interest in this approach to philanthropy that has a special appeal to 20-somethings. One phenomenon of this is that young people literally calculate that they could do more good making lots of money in tech or finance, living frugally and giving much of it away, than they could actually devoting their careers to the nonprofit sector. This movement also takes a rigorous look at the world's most pressing problems and the cost of solving them. If the cost of saving one life in your home town/city could save a hundred lives in India or Africa, is "giving locally" a morally selfish act? Effective altruism adherents eschew the idea of "giving with your heart" and promote the idea of giving based on a careful analysis of where funds could have the greatest human impact, And, of course, as reflected in Gates's comments, this movement takes an especially dim view of cultural philanthropy. (Mostafa Heddaya, author of the Hyperallergic piece, points out the hypocrisy of Gates's position, given his massive investment in his own 66,000 s.f. home, nicknamed "Xanadu," and his art, which includes $36 million paid for Winslow Homer's "Lost on the Grand Banks" in 1998.)

This is not the first time, of course, that donors, ethicists, and pundits have associated arts giving with "the rich funding their personal cultural enjoyment at the expense of other worthier causes." In 2007 former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in an LA Times opinion piece, called for changes in Federal  tax law to create different levels of deductibility based on how much a donation was truly serving a charitable purpose. Arts giving was not considered to qualify as fully charitable under these proposed guidelines. University giving was put into the same category as the arts. Reich's point - and he DOES make a good point - is that not enough people are giving to help the truly poor and needy. Does another $10,000 to Harvard's endowment really have the same social value as $10,000 going directly to feed the hungry?

What is scary about this trend for the arts is that "effective altruism" really resonates with young people, and it seems to make logical sense to a generation of data-driven young donors. Arts groups are already facing the challenge of how to make themselves relevant to a younger generation, many of whom have not had the benefit of a quality arts education. They also associate the arts with rich people, black tie galas, their parents and grandparents, stuffiness, "Euro-centric culture,"and grand edifices (Reich in his piece even refers to "arts palaces" as if the arts were only the province of the Czars). Much has been written about the massive multi-trillion dollar transfer of wealth we are in the midst of now, as the extraordinary wealth of many in the Boomer generation begins to be passed to their children, the Millennials. We are already seeing evidence of this next generation rejecting their parents and grandparents commitment to arts and culture, and steering their family philanthropy in different directions, often even selling their family art collection to raise more funds for philanthropy, rather than keeping it or donating it to a museum.

Don't get me wrong - there is a very good side to this movement. The developed world, America and Americans included, have not directed enough attention to solving the massive problems of the developing world. This was beautifully brought home in Tracy Kidder's moving profile of Paul Farmer and his work in Mountains Beyond Mountains. We may read heart-wrenching articles of poverty and devastation in places far away from us, but how much are we really giving to address these problems (outside of the surges generated by natural disasters like the recent Philippines tragedy)? Are we making personal sacrifices in our own lifestyle (luvurious by global standards) to dig deeper and give more?  Raising awareness of the need of those parts of the world with more resources to address these challenges is beneficial. And creating a culture of philanthropy in our young people is also a wonderful and welcome phenomenon. This passionate commitment to making the world a better place is extraordinary, and I see it in my 20-something daughters as well. Finally, basing giving on some rigorous analysis of impact and effectiveness has great value.

But here is my problem. This completely dispassionate assessment of philanthropic value does not allow for a holistic approach to what makes a healthy society. If everybody gave this way, we might be solving Third World crises at the expense of fostering crises right here at home, and rampant un-checked homelessness, poverty, public health challenges in America would ultimately damage our economy (nationally and locally) thus diminishing the capacity in the long term to help abroad. Not to mention, things that are important to our souls, that are fostered through the arts (beauty, emotion, understanding of other cultures, tolerance, inspiration, joy) can be very hard to sufficiently measure in a world of purely data-driven philanthropy.

It also assumes that the arts have no social value at all and creates an artificial "either/or" decision over where to give. It must be "both/and". There is a condescending undertone to this approach as well - unintentional - that assumes somehow that poor people need only their basic needs met, that they do not have the same right as other to the beauty and inspiration of the arts. I don't need to go into here all the reasons why the arts have value - but clearly we need to do a much better job communicating this to the "effective altruists." One of the many commenters on the Hyperallergic story put it this way: "The better way to argue the point is to think about ways that art and art appreciation may have a positive impact on the world. Those effects might include liberalization, highlighting the voice of marginalized groups, promoting tolerance and compassion, and breaking rigid mindsets. This might, in turn, lead to fewer wars, reduced persecution of minority groups, and even an increased involvement in other philanthropic endeavors. Might be a stretch, but it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility."

Years ago I remember Hildy Simmons, the former head of JP Morgan Private Bank's Global Foundations Group, talking about the need to approach philanthropy like a balanced investment portfolio, that every donor must find their own personal balance of causes, risk capital versus sustaining/operating capital, and that societally all these personal choices needed to balance out, with adequate support for the arts, education, human service, medicine and health care.

If we find that this next generation is less engaged as audience members and arts attenders, and also much less philanthropic towards the arts, and this does not change as they mature and grow into leadership roles in business and philanthropy, then the cultural life of our country is in for some very rocky decades ahead, and our nation and our communities will be immeasurably diminshed as a result.


  1. Thanks for taking this on, Gary. It's the paradox of our shrinking borders... the fact that we have technology to see need and give of our wealth on a global scale does not mean that need and responsibility ends on a local scale. I've lived in two third world countries and the importance of honoring and stimulating creative expression isn't diminished in those places, it's magnified, and likewise my appreciation for creative expression and sustaining cultural assets in our own communities isn't just "nice", it's also necessary... both/and must the be new norm and short of that is truly hypocritical.