From time to time, a news story about a very wealthy individual doing something very kind with their money goes viral. Billionaire Robert F. Smith recently paid off the student debt of the entire Morehouse College class of 2019. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, paid off student lunch debts for an entire Rhode Island school district. Last year, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario pledged to donate the company’s entire $10 million tax cut to nonprofit organizations fighting climate change. These are stories of extraordinary generosity — and that’s kind of the problem.
Taken together, these stories may create the impression that a few people with big bank accounts (and bigger hearts) can fix society’s problems. But the reality is that these stories are remarkable precisely because they are so uncommon, and the sporadic generosity of even the kindest rich people is no substitute for systemic solutions to systemic problems like widespread inequality.
Behind the haze of buzzwords like “win-win”, “giving back”, and “social purpose”, wealthy “thought leaders” pour millions into gestures of generosity while failing to address the structural issues behind the problems they’re “fixing.” At best, these would-be saviors suffer from a glaring poverty of ambition; at worst, they knowingly leverage the optics of generosity to make it easier to hold onto their own privilege.
Our society is taking on water, and a few well-meaning rich folks are trying to plug the leaks with hundred-dollar bills. That’s all well and good, but it’s no substitute for actually fixing the boat.