In Summary

  • Opinion piece for The Age, by Krystian Seibert, Industry Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology

When French billionaires Francois-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault tried to outbid each other with pledges in the hundreds of millions of euros to fund the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, they probably expected to receive a wave of gratitude.

Instead they have largely copped a mountain of criticism. People have wondered why they can be so quick to pledge funds to rebuild a cathedral when there are so many other unmet needs in France. According to one estimate, there are 140,000 homeless people in France, of which 30,000 are children. Why didn’t this figure spur Pinault and Arnault into a philanthropic bidding war, when a burnt down cathedral roof did?

This sort of question is a good one to ask. Philanthropy around the world, by and large, is a transformative force for good. It can be an essential source of “risk capital” for the social and environmental innovation that others won’t fund.

But at the same time it is also an exercise of power by people with wealth. In the words of Rob Reich, a Stanford professor and author of a new book about philanthropy called Just Giving, "In a democracy, power deserves scrutiny not just gratitude.”

If we look at our governments, scrutiny of their actions generally leads to better outcomes. It’s no surprise that countries with open and accountable governments are generally less corrupt and more responsive to their citizens.

We’re exposed to scrutiny from a young age and it continues throughout our working life. If you know somebody will be checking your homework at school, you’re likely to put in more effort than if nobody will read it. The same goes for what you do at work. Scrutiny can also make philanthropy better and this is how.

Around the world, people are increasingly questioning how money is made, which is linked with a rising wave of concern about inequality.

When it comes to philanthropy, there are valid questions to be asked not just about the good deeds that some people of wealth do with one hand, but how they make money with their other hand. Such scrutiny can lead to better alignment between the two, to address the concern that making money through questionable business practices can involve "taking" and philanthropy is a form of "giving back".

Philanthropy is the use of private wealth for public good, often with a tax subsidy, but there are different views about what the public good is. Scrutiny can also make philanthropists think about their priorities in a different way so they’re more reflective of the views of the broader community, and to involve more diverse voices in their decision-making processes. This can help ensure that philanthropy works in service of democracy, by amplifying the views of those without power in society.

If philanthropy responds thoughtfully to the scrutiny it receives, then it will retain what’s referred to as a social licence. This means that the broader community will view philanthropy, and individual philanthropists, as legitimate. And given that philanthropy is intended to be a force for good in our society, retaining such legitimacy is essential.

What we’ve seen since the Notre-Dame fire is that people are questioning the social licence of the French billionaires who have pledged to fund its rebuilding. This provides an opportunity to redefine how big philanthropy operates.

Given that the French state owns Notre-Dame, President Emmanuel Macron has a lot of say over what happens with its rebuilding. Macron should use his presidential authority to convene a meeting with Pinault and Arnault, as well as France’s other major philanthropists and people of wealth, together with community leaders and activists. He shouldn’t hold the meeting in the opulent setting of the Elysee Presidential Palace, but in a community centre in Paris’ banlieues, most of which have very high concentrations of disadvantage.

At the meeting, he should say that the French state is willing to accept the billionaires' generosity, but rebuilding the Notre-Dame is not enough. He should ask the philanthropists present to listen to community leaders and activists, and hear about what they’re experiencing on the ground and what they think needs to happen to address the disadvantage that is fuelling much of the civil unrest in France.

Then he should provide the philanthropists with an opportunity to respond, to set out not just how they will fund the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, but also the rebuilding of France. It would be a conversation not just about the money they can commit, but about how they can genuinely share power over how this money is deployed. Perhaps out of this we would see a new "grand bargain" emerge about how big philanthropy, the state and the community will work in France.

That would be a way to turn what is a backlash against big philanthropy into an opportunity to redefine it. And it would have ramifications not just in France but around the world.

Krystian Seibert is an industry fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology. Read his opinion piece originally published in The Age.