There has been an interesting debate happening in DC (and by interesting, I of course mean something nerds like me find interesting) over David Rubenstein’s $7.5-million donation to the Washington Monument in order to help cover the costs of necessary repairs.
Pablo Eisenberg contributed a piece to The Chronicle of Philanthropy titled “Misplaced Giving Priorities of America’s Wealthy.” In the article Eisenberg talks of Rubenstein’s donation and how such a gift (and the media’s coverage of it) was “deeply disturbing” because for all intents and purposes this gift, according to Eisenberg, was not something that would be able to help society. He went on and made very clear his point that billionaires should use their money for the greater good and should be giving to homeless shelters, for example.
Christian Clansky, Communications Director for the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, contributed their own response. The response laid out that actually a gift such as this does benefit society, in that the monument attracts tourists, which help provide people jobs, etc.
I tend to side with Clansky’s view of philanthropic giving, but want to elaborate some.
First, it should be noted, Rubenstein has given a lot to DC. He donated over $14 million to the National Zoo to help with their panda breeding program. He bought original copies of the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence then immediately donated them to the US Government. (The Magna Carta is on display at the National Archives and the Declaration of Independence on display at the White House) He has also signed the Giving Pledge, which says he plans to give away over half of his wealth (similar pledges have been signed by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates). Rubenstein has donated over $100 million to various charities supporting the arts, education, and children’s health. Any way you want to slice it, there is no denying Rubenstein is a wonderfully giving man.
I was really troubled by Eisenberg’s piece. Not because I don’t know there is a great need for more giving in regards to societal issues. (I work for two nonprofits and would love to have some beneficiary write a $7.5 million check over to us) However, what right do we have to judge this man on how he wants to spend his money? Especially since he is trying to contribute good things to society?
He could have easily pulled an MC Hammer (sorry Hammer, I love you) and pissed all of his money away on mansions and gold plated toilets and whatever. Instead he wants to contribute to society. Wants to contribute to our history. Rubenstein, in an article with the Washington Post, referenced his deep love for the District of Columbia and his deep love of America and America’s history. Why should he be judged for contributing to society in his own way?
I think it sets a dangerous precedent to label any kind of philanthropic work as either “good” or “bad.” We need people like the Gates’ for donating money to combat Malaria and HIV/AIDS. However, we also need people like Rubenstein to donate money to culturally significant issue areas. Both of these types of giving have their places in our world, and to imply any thing else just isn’t correct.