By Malcolm Burrows
Some of the most nefarious villains in popular culture are philanthropists. The fabulous — and fabulously junky — Netflix series Lupin makes it clear. Philanthropists are smiling hypocrites with too much money and no scruples.
In Lupin, the villain that bedevils the titular gentleman burglar hero (played by the supremely charismatic Omar Sy) is a corrupt, arm’s dealing industrialist who has cops and cabinet ministers in his pocket. The plot partly turns on the launch of his private foundation, which is notionally to be run by his only daughter. Instead it’s a facade for money-laundering. Super villain bad stuff.
When did philanthropists become a “thing” that attracts both attention and suspicion? What is it about the “philanthropist” that is fuelling the popular imagination? And what’s the reality of on the ground in Canada?
A stereotype emerges
Without full data to support me, I’d say the contemporary image of the “philanthropist” dates to the early 2000s. It was the billionaire-megadonor, Bill Gates-Warren Buffet years. The book, Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save The World, by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green captured the moment. The gee-whiz title conveys the breathless sycophancy of the writers and why philanthropy might inspire skepticism. Suddenly, the word “philanthropist” became mainstream — a ten-cent term for charitable donor.
My prime evidence for this cultural phenomenon is Bond movies. Quantum of Solace, 2008. Villain is a philanthropist. Before that bad guys were just foreign and/or mega rich. Jump forward to the 2020s: Bill Gates caused Covid and is injecting people with micro-chip laced vaccines. Q told me.
Reasons for the bad reputation
Here are three possible reasons why “philanthropist”, especially of the mega-rich variety, may have become a synonym for baddie:
1. The label has been overused and is perceived to virtuously rebrand rich people. It’s a form of reputation laundering — sometimes intergenerational — that obscures a multitude of sins.
2. There is an image of philanthropy as an extended glitzy party or photo op. These pictures imply the philanthropic act is more about society and personal pleasure. Self-indulgent, ego-driven stuff.
3. Philanthropists get more attention than the work or people they fund. This happens when the size of the cheque overwhelms the action in the community.
Philanthropy has wealth and power inequity baked in. Some argue that no matter how well-meaning, philanthropy is a one-way street. The philanthropist has the money and power; beneficiaries do not. But in practice these inequities can and should be mitigated. The power imbalance is muted after a gift is made, the charity owns the money, and is carrying out its programs.
Changing face of philanthropy
Beyond the debate, and the popular culture stereotypes, is an underlying shift about philanthropy in Canada. The philanthropist is not who we think he is.
There is a combination of factors that has been fuelling philanthropy in Canada in the last 25 years. Each item on the list below is worthy of its own debate and several academic theses. Combined they are transforming the way and amount Canadians are giving to charity:
• increase in asset values (stocks, real estate, business valuations);
• wealth concentration;
• smaller family size and more Canadians without children;
• diversity of population;
• aging society;
• mainstream positive awareness of philanthropy to contribute to society;
• increased professional resources and structural options to support philanthropy;
• tax incentives to encourage donations from assets.
In my practice as a philanthropic advisor, these factors are combining to create non-traditional philanthropists. Women out number men, especially as they age. Donors come from every imaginable background and ethnicity. And their stories are not fodder for movie melodrama.
Most are values-based donors who don’t identify with the label of philanthropist or the associated popular myth. They are altruistic, don’t play games, and are generally trusting. A high percentage of my clients will donate most of their estate after they are dead. They just want to give — without all the trappings.
One of my favourite stereotype-busting philanthropists is a deceased client of ours, who I will call Petie. Petie immigrated to Canada when she was a child. She worked as a nurse; her husband for the LCBO. They had no kids and were savers with modest means. A widow in her 70s, she inherited $2.5 million from a cousin (also without children) in at age 80. Her first reaction was to say “this isn’t my money. I don’t need it, and I don’t want it.”
Her second reaction was to establish a foundation that provided scholarships and training support for nurses. Women helping women in a traditionally overlooked and under appreciated profession. And Petie-named foundation, that grew to $4 million with an estate donation, after her female cousin.
Now, Petie, was of a different generation than the clients today, but I tell her story because it couldn’t be further from Lupin’s Hubert Pellegrini, Bond villains or Bill Gates. There are many more Peties in Canada. Attention should be paid.
Malcolm Burrows is Head of Philanthropic Advisory Services at Scotia Wealth Management. He writes this column exclusively for each issue of Foundation Magazine.