Power of Billionaire Philanthropists Raises Questions

The huge gifts made by the likes of Bill Gates and Ted Turner are prompting questions about the accountability of philanthropists and the private foundations they establish.

The well-funded power to do good represented by Gates, Turner, and other billionaire donors has nonprofit experts of all political persuasions wondering aloud about the possible harm that could be done by a major-league donor.

"Imagine, and it's not really so science-fictiony, what I'll call Dr. Evil Donor," said Tom Riley, director of research at the Philanthropy Roundtable , an association of donors in Washington, D.C. "....[I]t's not at all difficult to imagine an extremely wealthy philanthropist imposing his ideology or interests on impoverished or developing countries. Subjects like biotech, narcotics legalization, and other emerging topics could lead to the potential for some serious mischief by rich people who were never elected to anything by anyone."

The subject of accountability is also troubling to Neil Carlson, director of communications at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "Charitable foundations are accountable to their boards but the boards aren't democratically elected," says Carlson. "Don't get me wrong. Foundations are necessary. Turner and Gates do some great work. But that isn't a substitute for a strong and vigorous civil society and a government that has the capacity to respond to the needs of its citizens."

Some nonprofit observers also say there's a fine line between giving to do good and giving to further one's own aims. Some critics, for example, contend that much of Gates' philanthropy is motivated by a desire to improve the image of Microsoft as it fends off accusations of unfair business practices. Other experts worry that the international visibility of individual mega-donors has lessened pressure on governments around the world to provide solutions to a range of social problems.

"I'm not concerned that Bill Gates is too powerful," commented Marc Cohen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute and an expert on overseas development aid. "I'm concerned that the United States government isn't doing more to provide vaccines and prevent diseases worldwide."

Mark O'Keefe. "Wealthiest in World Wield Power Through Philanthropy" San Francisco Chronicle 01/21/2001.