Other People’s Philanthropy: Why Gladwell is Wrong About Higher Ed Giving


Esteemed essayist and bad debater Malcolm Gladwell has now entered the podcast game. And as one would expect, he’s already a formidable player. His new series, Revisionist History, is good. I’ve listened to three episodes so far and enjoyed each. However, I take issue with his criticisms of higher-education giving in Episode Six: My Little Hundred Million. Thus, a new post.

My Little Hundred Million is the third in a series on higher education, a topic Gladwell is evidently passionate about. The episode condemns the relatively recent philanthropic phenomenon of multi-billion dollar gifts to universities that already have enormous endowments. Think Stanford, Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago, Columbia, etc (you can see a list here). Gladwell’s argument is that a major gift will have more impact if bestowed on a college or university system that needs the money more. This was the logic behind Hank Rowan’s $100 million donation to a small university in New Jersey (shunning his alma mater, MIT), which essentially kicked off the modern trend of billionaire gifts to universities.

(At least, I think that’s Gladwell’s argument. In the podcast, he curiously never makes the more obvious moral argument: that that type of philanthropy could be better spent on, say, helping feed the hungry, ala effective altruism. If he had, I would be more sympathetic to the criticisms. Instead, it seems like he thinks it should still go to higher education, just to less endowed institutions.)

As usual, Gladwell attempts to add assurance to the argument he’s examining by tying it to some kind of named social science theory or statistical analysis. This time, he connects the idea to David Sally and Chris Anderson’s popular analysis on “weak-link” and “strong-link” players in soccer (see their book, The Numbers Game). Essentially, in certain sports, having weaker players hurts your overall chances of winning more than in other sports. Think about soccer. There are very few opportunities to score, so mistakes by weaker players have a proportionally higher impact. Then think about basketball. There are many opportunities to score. So typically, one dominant player–Michael Jordan, say–can make up for the weak links on the team. Therefore, having a few weaker players isn’t going to have as big of an impact in basketball as it would in soccer. Basketball is a strong-link game. Soccer is a weak-link game. Gladwell apparently sees higher education giving as a weak-link game, and is appalled by the prevailing strong-link mentality of donors and universities.

And in some ways, Gladwell may be correct. I think often about philanthropy, particularly philanthropic efficiency and effectiveness. There is certainly waste and there is certainly mis-allocation of funds. But to make a strong call on the rightness or wrongness of a gift, you first need to agree on the 1) goals of the donor, 2) the timeline of impact, and the 3) type of difference the donor is trying to make. Gladwell doesn’t examine any of these in his criticisms, particularly of Phil Knight’s $400M gift to an unnamed graduate program at Stanford, initiated by outgoing president, John Hennessy. Instead, Gladwell assumes the goals for himself. He takes it for granted that donors should or do have the same goals, timeline, and types of impact in mind as he does. This leads to an overly broad conclusion and what is certain to be bad advice to billionaires in many instances: don’t give to top universities.

Why is it bad advice? Let’s examine the conclusion in the context of goals. What if my goal, as a donor, is to cure a particular type of cancer as fast as possible. Should I not give to a top-tier research institution like MIT? Would it be better to give to a small state school, with hardly any medical infrastructure to speak of? In which instance is my goal most likely to be accomplished in the shortest amount of time? I think the answer is obvious. The same would go for a number of different scenarios.

In My Little Hundred Million, we don’t hear from a single billionaire donor to a large university. Gladwell seems to assume the donors’ goals are (or should be) his goals: namely, supporting a “rising tides lift all boats” theory of education that will ultimately, in his view, lead to better economic output on the whole. Sure, that’s a fine goal*. But we don’t know if the donors have the same goal. And it’s their money. They’re smart people. Maybe they have a good reason or argument. Without talking to them about their objectives and rationale, it’s silly to broadly condemn, and Gladwell slips into a kind of simple, self-righteous moralism. It’s as silly as if I were to condemn him for not immediately giving his notoriously high speaking fees directly to, say, the Against Malaria Foundation**. After all, $80,000 for a speaking gig would buy some 18,000 mosquito nets in the DRC and Malawi, likely saving or pro longing hundreds of lives. Isn’t that better than spending money on podcast production?

In any event, I still recommend the podcast. But even more strongly recommend that you listen with a critical ear.

*Though I’m far from convinced by the economic output argument…wouldn’t the U.S. have a better chance of staying competitive if we gave more to universities that are already on the cusp of major innovations, rather than ones that need to catch up?

**The Against Malaria Foundation, petulance aside, is an excellent charity. 

Let’s Start Sharing Our Charities

If I were in charge of forming social customs, I would institute one that involved sharing your favorite charities around tax time each year. You would proudly and publicly represent a few of your beloved organizations to friends and colleagues, and explain why these organizations earned your support. Personally I would love to learn more about those causes with which I’m not familiar, and would get an additional kick out of the insight into my friends’ passions.

Sadly the above is not a social custom – at least not within my networks – but if it were, the following would be my contribution (in no particular order). Feel free to share your own.

1. Prison Entrepreneurship Club (PEP): PEP has a remarkably intuitive idea – help transform prisoners into productive members of society. Utilizing volunteers, PEP helps recent inmates develop business plans and offers MBA-level courses to individuals committed to turning their lives around and channeling their energy into productive entrepreneurship. I was actually a volunteer for a recent class, and loved guiding my mentee through the process of developing a thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling business plan. Here’s a write-up about PEP from the NY Times.

2. Doctors without Borders: Most of you will be familiar with DWB and the tremendous work they do across the planet providing emergency medical aid during conflicts or disasters. I first learned of DWB while covering the Haiti earthquake for a media organization I used to intern for; I actually got to interview one of the volunteer doctors and was blown away by his dedication. I’ve since come to learn why they are one of the most respected – and needed – aid organizations.

3. Bart D. Ehrman Foundation: A dark horse here. Not many people have heard of Bart Ehrman’s website – Christianity in Antiquity – but it’s fascinating and has an innovative charitable model. Bart is a world-class biblical scholar and author of several best-selling books including Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, and uses his website to raise money for charity. In order to read his daily posts, you pay an extremely reasonable membership fee (~$4/month), and all donations go to organizations fighting poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

4. The Planetary Society: Considering how much I love space, I think it’s a little surprising that 2013 was my first year to give to the Planetary Society. The society was started in 1980 by my hero Carl Sagan, and is now run by everyone’s favorite science guy, Bill Nye. Their mission is to “create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own,” and they take on tons of cool projects like scanning the sky for asteroids and identifying earth-like planets in far-away solar systems. They also take on fundamentally important work like advocating for needed science funding and helping educators better inspire a love of science in their students.

5. United Way (of Metropolitan Dallas): Every UW operates independently, and the one where I happen to live is phenomenal. They have really mobilized the community around three issues: income, education, and health, and work with stakeholders of every size and stripe to make North Texas a better place. One thing that is helpful about UWMD is that they run a competitive grant application process where organizations in the stated interest areas have to pass a battery of reviews and site visits in order to get the UW’s approval. Therefore, when you give to the UWMD, you know your money is going only to those organizations that have been been successfully vetted.

***Important Caveat: Not that anyone would, but please don’t rely on just my (or any one person’s) advice regarding where to give. Make sure to do your own research! Sites like Charity Navigator are great for larger organizations like DWB.

Secular Humanists Don’t Give? Joe Klein, Dale McGowan, and the Kiva Leaderboard

Atheists Don't Give?

When the set of devastating tornadoes struck Oklahoma not too long ago, I sent out an email to my coworkers directing them to four reputable organizations they could donate through (on the advice of this article). These included the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army (though if I’d known this then, I probably would have left them out), Operation USA, and the Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief. I personally donated through the Foundation Beyond Belief because I had been alerted to the fund earlier that morning via the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Only a few days ago, respected Time Magazine journalist Joe Klein wrote an article called “Can Service Save Us?” and insinuated that secular humanists did little to aid relief in the area:

“…But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon…”

This comment was rightly ridiculed by representatives of the many thousands of secular humanists who had donated their time and money to disaster relief in Oklahoma, and elsewhere around the country both in the recent and distant past. Dale McGowan, executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief, has written a marvelous response to Joe Klein in the Washington Post, which you can read here.

But what I found most telling was something in the comment section of McGowan’s article. A user casually pointed out the current team giving standings on Kiva, the popular micro-lending site. Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, and Freethinkers are by far the most generous lenders, currently outpacing “Kiva Christians” by approximately $4 million. Come on, Christians, are you perhaps forgetting Matthew 19:21 (or am I overlooking a conflict with Exodus 22:25…it’s difficult to keep these straight, no?)?

If you are someone who needs God to be a good person, that’s terrific – just don’t go around assuming everyone else does too.


Watch Where You Give: The Salvation Army and Homosexuality

I hate to admit this, but I’ve had a serious case of “head in the sand” about the Salvation Army. I have always known that they are an organization based on Christian principles, having volunteered with them several times over the last few years, but I had no idea they held such a fundamental stance on homosexuality.

The article below brought it home, with Major Andrew Craibe, a Salvation Army Media Relations Director in Australia, essentially agreeing that homosexuals should be put to death (because, you know, it’s what Scripture says). He did this on the record, folks! I’ve never heard such an ignorant remark from a major charitable organization like SA. I immediately rushed to investigate whether this was the view held by the organization as a whole, and luckily it wasn’t (see this HuffPo article which is a little better researched than that below), but their stance is still remarkably benighted.

I will no longer be volunteering with the Salvation Army, and am tempted to stop my donations altogether as well (yes even in the red buckets during Christmas). Plenty of organizations with more humane philosophies can meet the same needs and I don’t want my cash spreading hate or intolerance in any way.

FULL ARTICLE HERE: “Salvation Army Says, “Gays Need to Be Put to Death”