The Ethics of Millionaire Philanthropy

We all know how difficult it is sometimes to do arts fundraising in a way that’s ethical, there is comparatively so little funding in the arts compared to other sectors that conversations around whether we should take funding can be difficult. They can sometimes be a deciding factor in whether an organisation closes or not, as many organisations have found in the pandemic as they have been forced to make difficult decisions.

It’s becoming pretty standard practice now that most organisations have an ethics policy in relation to their fundraising. Largely the arts sector draws a line saying that taking money from arms dealing or fossil fuel giants is unethical, in 2019 the Royal Shakespeare Company ended their sponsorship relationship with BP due to youth pressure.

We ask ourselves which millionaires / large corporations we should accept money from but a conversation that’s missing is: should we accept money from millionaires at all?

There are 3 main dimensions to this question: ethics, long-term planning and social engagement.

The Ethical Question

Let’s start with the ethical question because it’s probably the most explicit.

Millionaire philanthropy has always had a very mixed reputation, on the one hand it can do a lot of good in the world, but it’s comes at the cost of allowing individuals to decide the agenda of certain sectors with no democratic scrutiny or accountability.

Forbes in 2019 listed Bill Gates as the second largest charitable giver in the US but his foundation was set-up four years after he was found in 1998 very publicly to have illegally monopolised the market, allowing him to rebrand as a philanthropist. Another person on that list is Jeff Bezos, whose company Amazon has been extensively documented as creating unsafe conditions in their warehouses and has been linked a number of times to human rights abuses, however he is associated more with his philanthropy than these allegations. In the same way that we understand that accepting money from an oil company is often PR to cover up the way in which they are doing environmental damage, we can see the parallels here.

These two millionaires are extreme examples, but there is an obvious need for our ethics statements to regulate who we take money from, and in some cases, if we can take money from millionaires at all.

Generational Planning

I don’t mean planning for 10 years down the line, I’m thinking of generational planning. This is less about how we might survive within the current system, and more about how we might ensure that we are using our influence in such a way that is creates a better environment for the arts instead of a more hostile one.

If we take the examples mentioned in the previous section, these men have the ability to make decisions about the future of certain industries and neither are democratically elected individuals or subject to any kind of democratic process like a government might be.

To quote from a Vox article that makes this point in greater details than I can here,

“Big philanthropy — more than ordinary small donations that most people make — is an exercise of power. It’s an attempt to direct your private assets for some public influence, often with a naked aspiration to change public policy. And in a democratic setting, wherever power is exerted, it deserves our scrutiny, in order to understand whether it’s serving democratic purposes or undermining them. And philanthropy shouldn’t be exempt from that examination.”

As we accept large philanthropy, there is an argument to be made that suggests we are endorsing the future of the arts being decided not by artists, not by the public, but by largely unscrutinised wealthy individuals. This does not suggest out arts funding climate will improve as generations progress.

Social Aims

Andrew Lloyd Webber flew to the UK from New York in order to vote to cut working tax credits for the working poor. At the time he had only voted on 30 occasions out of a possible 1898 which means cutting tax credits was in the top 1.6% of issues he felt he needed to support. However, he is also largely known for his philanthropy through the Andrew Lloyd Webber foundation.

This is an incident that people talk about a lot, I’m not here to comment on ALW’s character, I’ve never met him. I just want to use that example in a thought experiment to understand the structures at play in our economics.

Let’s imagine a theatre in a predominantly working-class area, they use money from ALW to subsidise a ticket offer for a certain show to make it more financially accessible. Some of these people might be the people who are now poorer because of the cut in working tax credits. Would we need that ticket scheme if working tax credits had not been cut?

It raises the questions of whether theatres can have social aims around class and still take money from millionaires who have contributed to structures that make the working-class poorer in the first place. In a utopian world I believe it is disingenuous to have these social aims, but obviously, our economic system compromises our ethics here because we have to fund work somehow.


As I said in the beginning, these are difficult conversations in an already stretched funding climate for the arts and I don’t have the answers for how we resolve this but I would like to quickly look at some funding ideas which might be the beginning of solutions.

If you continue to extrapolate the argument ignoring practicalities it suggests that we must look at long-term goals that integrate fundraising with public engagement, marketing and programming which looks at influencing a societal and economic structure that can make redundant this millionaire philanthropy in favour of centralised statutory funding or even individual giving campaigns. This move might even create the environmental conditions for new collective funding structures such as those emerging in the Mutual Aid movement. Arts organisation that use these structures successfully include Resourcing Racial Justice who you can find here.

In order to explore this we might start by folding our relationship to economic structure into our Mission, Vision, Values and subsequently our Theory of Change. Your Theory of Change is often the thing that connects your fundraising and your programming, if you commit to one of the “impacts” being a societal move away from millionaire philanthropy then it will logically affect your activity and outcomes.

This might manifest in programming which has structures like there are at Arika who “use those resources to centre the ideas, voices and practices of communities seeking to dismantle the oppressions that are disproportionately killing them and damaging all of us.” and “we dedicate around a quarter of our programme funds and one permanent member of Arika to local political groups (sex worker led, migrant led and anti-poverty organising groups), and co-operate with them to create events initiated and chosen by the groups.”. They recognise that the societal and economic conditions that their community live in are affecting them and commit to structural change as opposed to just talking about big ideas.

Ultimately I think that in the current system we have to do good things with muddy money, or nothing will happen, but I think we have to do this while building structures that mean we’re not forced to make that choice in future. That’s where the hard work lies.

Writer / Theatre Maker in the UK. You can find me at @BoyAndPen elsewhere.