Seek to Do “Good”

These examples demonstrate the essential role that philanthropists, seeking to do good, play in making society and individual lives better. The Gates Foundation puts vast resources behind a vision of the world in which everyone has an equal chance to avoid sickness and thrive. The examples also demonstrate that seeking to do good isn’t easy, that others might disagree with your specific definition of good or means of achieving it, and that creating good outcomes involves more than just good intentions. Teach for America’s critics disagree that placing idealistic young people into our nation’s most challenging classrooms is necessarily “good” for the children in those rooms.

History is full of similar examples of individual and institutional philanthropists accomplishing public goals that we all now agree are good—from rejecting slavery, to abolishing child labor, to assisting earthquake victims, to taking care of the sick, poor, and displaced around the world, every single day. Through philanthropy people affirm and enact what they believe is good, and together these moral leaders contribute to the ongoing debate and definition of the greater good in any society. In fact, many accounts of the role and purpose of the nonprofit sector (Frumkin, 2002; Payton & Moody, 2008) argue that it is the arena where new causes are introduced, new social problems are defined, and new solutions are introduced and promoted. So the “good” that philanthropists seek changes in part over time and across cultures. This is not to say that philanthropy is the only arena in which we debate or pursue our views of the public good, just that it is an essential one—and that this public good orientation is a primary criteria for judging any philanthropic action.

We must remember that the Hippocratic maxim calls for philanthropists to seek to do good, not necessarily to “do good by everyone’s definition.” For many, using the term “public good” suggests that there is something close to an absolute, correct, objectively determined, and universally agreed public good out there, and our job is to discover it and implement it. But the reality, as Calhoun (1998) puts it, is that the public good is “forged” not “found”; it is “created in and through the public process, it does not exist in advance of it” (p. 32). The public good is constantly contested and debated, and philanthropists engage in this debate when they intervene in others’ lives to enact their own view of what is good. This can lead to problems, of course, such as when a philanthropist’s definition of good is reprehensible to the majority, or prioritizes certain needs or goals over what seem to be much more urgent ones. A notable recent example of the latter was when the famously caustic and eccentric New York hotel magnate Leona Helmsley left the bulk of her multibillion-dollar fortune, upon her death, to a charitable trust with (somewhat vague) instructions that the money be used chiefly to support the care and welfare of dogs. While leaving money to help animals was laudatory, many felt that leaving all of the money to this purpose—especially when this would be one of the largest philanthropic grantmakers in the country—was problematic. Critics essentially questioned her definition of the public good. Less striking disagreements over what is “good” are similar to those raised in the examples above—for example, which diseases deserve priority funding and which solutions to teacher shortages will have the most impact.

The point is that honoring the first part of a Hippocratic Oath for philanthropists involves making choices about the definition of the public good they seek, and that these choices might be called into question. This is part of trying to follow an ethical principle.

The public good mission of a philanthropic endeavor is often implic- it—we might just be acting on a vague feeling that we want to help. And acting with the intention of doing good does not mean that these philanthropic acts must be “altruistic” in a pure sense. In fact, there are very often tangible and intangible benefits to the philanthropist—such as applause from peers, personal satisfaction, heartfelt thanks from an earthquake victim, or a tax break—and these personal benefits are part of the philanthropist’s mixed motives. The question of altruism that concerns many of the contributors to this volume—in terms of nonself-interested motives and lack of tangible return for example—is best seen as an adjunct one to the question of action toward a vision of the public good that is the focus here. What the Hippocratic Oath for philanthropists would require is simply that the action be designed to seek to do good, regardless of whether or not the philanthropist benefits from this seeking.

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