COMMENTARY | We often cheer philanthropists and others who contribute to charity, but might there occasionally be a darker side to charitable contributions? While some have long sneered at philanthropists who may have donated to help feel superior or seek public attention, others worry that philanthropists also seek to buy influence. A Philadelphia group, Parents United for Education, is contending that the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group, both nonprofits, are doing the latter, essentially buying “closed-door access” to school district officials and pushing their own agendas, reports the Associated Press. The group wants the philanthropists to be registered as lobbyists, formalizing a political link and placing limits on their activities. Could this budding lawsuit end up changing the nature of large-scale philanthropy in the United States?
The issue is certainly not limited to Philadelphia, nor to public education. How many public institutions are influenced by nonprofit or private sector donors, perhaps to the detriment of some classes of citizens? Creating policies that benefit some citizens results in a comparative detriment to others, after all. If a court rules that philanthropic influence creates an unfair lobbying effect, the results could be extremely widespread and have deep impacts. Public education from preschool through graduate school is often heavily invested in receiving financial assistance from philanthropists. Will new laws be put in place to make sure that big money donors are not allowed undue influence on policymaking?
Would these laws hinder philanthropy? Many potential donors might balk at being required to register as “lobbyists” and be scrutinized by some government board as to their motives. While the laws might weed out some unscrupulous donors, they might also turn off many good-hearted citizens from donating. Few will want to donate their hard-earned money only to be accused of trying to buy influence. Should we turn a blind eye to keep the donations flowing, helping public institutions serve those they could not afford to serve otherwise?
Shining a harsh light on a potential “dark side” of philanthropy certainly raises unwanted questions. Do some philanthropists try to buy influence? Undoubtedly. Would philanthropy as a whole be harmed by trying to “root out” unscrupulous philanthropists? Very likely. Should we turn a blind eye and take the bits of bad with the overwhelming helpings of good? I don’t know.