Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


3 June 2016

A couple of things which caught my attention in the past week and made me think about one of the darker aspects of philanthropy: namely, its potential use as a weapon. I’m thinking here of instances in which although a public good is arguably being delivered as a result of a gift, the motive for making the gift is primarily to hurt a particular person or group of people that the donor doesn’t like for some reason.

The first thing I saw, and the lighter-hearted one by far, was a plotline in the TV series Billions, currently airing on Sky Atlantic here in the UK. (I should probably just stop briefly at this point and mention that my discussion here may constitute a spoiler in some people’s eyes. I don’t think it actually reveals any pertinent plot points, but as the spouse of someone with a truly pathological aversion to spoilers, I am well aware that some people aren’t so sanguine about these things. If that sounds like you, then stop reading now.)

Dealing in philanthropy

Billions is essentially a double-headed character piece about a billionaire hedge fund manager, Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti), who sets out to skewer him. One of the plot lines in the second episode (“Naming Rights”) concerns Axelrod’s desire to have a building named after him in return for a huge donation to a symphony orchestra. At first this seems like a fairly straightforward take on “name-plaque philanthropy”, and probably not something I would have bothered including in a blog.

However, we discover that the building already bears the name of a famous philanthropist of the past and that his heirs (who also form the board of his family foundation) own the naming rights. Axelrod makes his donation contingent on the family agreeing to give up those rights, and when the Director of the Symphony expresses uncertainty about whether that will prove possible, Axelrod makes it clear that he is aware that the remaining members of the family are in some financial trouble and that he is willing to offer them a substantial sum of money in return for having his name on the building. All of a sudden, things are more intriguing…

Where it gets really interesting is in the scene where Axelrod and his wife meet the members of the family to discuss his proposition. It transpires that Axelrod, who comes from a humble background, once worked at a golf club frequented by the original famous philanthropist, and that this philanthropist was responsible for Axelrod being unfairly fired. Axelrod explains all this to the remaining family members, before telling them that he is reducing his offer for the naming rights from $25m to $7m in order to make up for the $16 weekly wage he lost as a boy as a result of getting fired. Despite their outrage, the family are forced to accept the money. It is clear that the opportunity to humiliate them as revenge for his own earlier humiliation is Axelrod’s real motive, and that philanthropy is merely a convenient tool to enable this to happen.

Philanthropy in film, tv and Gawker

What does all this tell us? Well, for one thing it confirms my view that philanthropy is not especially well served by film and television. Although this storyline is much more nuanced than many, it still essentially boils down to “philanthropy as a shorthand for a very rich person being a rogue”. The other question it raises in my mind is the extent to which the motivation behind philanthropy and the end result it produces can be separated: if a donor is willing to give money to something that clearly results in a public good, but does so for reasons that are far less than noble (revenge, jealousy, one-upmanship etc.) is that OK? Should those looking to secure donations take a Machiavellian view that the end justifies the means, and turn a blind eye to any less savoury aspects of the donor’s motivation (or even, perish the thought, manipulate those drivers…)?

The second thing that got me thinking about the idea of philanthropy as a weapon is the real-world story of billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel’s revelation that he has been seeking out and helping to fund lawsuits against the celebrity news and gossip website Gawker (including the widely-publicised Hulk Hogan case). Thiel claims that this is in the public interest because Gawker has “pioneered a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there is no connection with the public interest” and has described his funding of lawsuits against the website as “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done”. Many critics have pointed out that the motivation seems more likely to be one of pure revenge, as Gawker outed Thiel as gay back in 2007 and he has reportedly held a grudge ever since.

Corrosive effect of wealth

The situation here is slightly different to that found in Billions: for one thing this is real life, so any concerns are less easy to write off as merely examples of roguish bad behaviour and seem more like deeply worrying demonstrations of the potentially corrosive effect of massive wealth in the hands of individuals. The other obvious difference is that the public benefit argument is far less clear. In Billions, Axelrod’s gift, even if impurely motivated, was going to result in $100m dollars going to the Symphony orchestra. Assuming you believe that cultural institutions represent a public benefit (which I absolutely do), then the legitimacy of this as a philanthropic donations is not in question.

In Peter Thiel’s case, not only is the motive for his donation potentially worrying, but the nature of the cause being funded has raised many concerned eyebrows, as it seems to amount to an attack on freedom of speech. Now, as many people have pointed out, Gawker is not exactly a shining paragon of virtue, and in many ways hardly the publication that you would want to be at the forefront of a debate on freedom of speech, as a lot of what it does amounts to mean-spirited gossip with little public interest justification.

However, this is precisely where the core issue really becomes clear: it is very easy to defend the right to free speech of a person or publication whose views and approach you agree with, but if you truly believe in the principle of free speech then you have to be willing to defend it even when the person or publication is one whose views or approach you have little sympathy for.

Freedom to publish

I may not approve of Gawker outing Thiel, and I may not approve of any of the other stories it has run which have led to lawsuits, but I still believe Gawker should have the freedom to publish them if it wishes. (Whether it should publish them is an entirely different matter, and I’m not going to offer any defence of Gawkers editorial judgment, or lack thereof). In this scenario, those who find themselves the subjects of negative stories are free to challenge those stories through the courts if they believe them to be untrue and harmful.

What is particularly worrying in Thiel’s case is that he is trying to use his enormous wealth to artificially shift this balance: rather than just pursuing his own lawsuit directly (which he has in fact chosen not to do), he has spent his money funding a legal team to go out and find other potential litigants for whom he could act as a third party funder. (A practice, I learnt in the course of reading, which is known as “champerty”, and used to be illegal in the US).

Defending others

Thiel’s defence of his approach is that he is doing it on behalf of those who fall victim of malicious Gawker stories but would be unable to afford to fight a lawsuit themselves. As he puts it, “I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves…even someone like Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan) who is a millionaire and famous and a successful person didn’t quite have the resources to do this alone.”

Perhaps there is something in this, as it would undoubtedly be worrying if Gawker or other news outlets were able to publish potentially untrue and damaging stories about people simply because they were aware that no-one would be able to challenge them. However, the introduction of a billionaire donor with a personal grudge who is willing to fund people to take out lawsuits seems to shift the balance so far the other way that it creates an equally undesirable situation.

Cause for concern

At this point one may feel like a spectator at a boxing match between two not-very-likeable protagonists, hoping against hope that they can find some way to simultaneously knock each other out so that you are not forced to accept either one as the winner. That seems unlikely, however, so one is forced to decide whether the scurrilous and irresponsible approach to journalism demonstrated by Gawker is more or less problematic than Peter Thiel’s attempts to misuse philanthropy in order to stifle free speech as part of his own personal vendetta.

Whilst neither is particularly appealing, for my money Thiel represents the greater cause for concern at this point. What his example shows is that the potential for philanthropy to be turned into a weapon that can be used as part of a deliberate campaign to cause harm to other individuals or organisations is real, and this is something that anyone who wants to promote philanthropy as a force for good should be aware of.