Notre-Dame Donation Backlash Raises Debate: What’s Worthy of Philanthropy?

But anonymity presents a problem because of its inherent lack of transparency.

“I’m concerned about the anonymity issue,” said Lawson Bader, chief executive of DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund. Knowing who a benefactor is helps build trust, he said, whereas anonymity can hide potential conflicts. For instance, museums are re-examining gifts from the Sackler family, a prominent donor in the art world, after its involvement in the opioid crisis became known. Had the donations been made anonymously, they would not be under scrutiny now.

Some critics hope that the backlash goes beyond assessing the merits of certain donors and donations and instead forces a wholesale re-evaluation of philanthropy.

Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” said he found the criticism of the donations to Notre-Dame healthy and wanted to see more of it. “I’ve been advocating for exactly that kind of reaction,” he said. “It is not hostility to giving. It’s simply an injection of skepticism about this kind of exertion of power.”

When philanthropists, particularly in the tech world, make sweeping pronouncements like Mark Zuckerberg’s $3 billion plan to cure all disease, Mr. Giridharadas said, society needs to tone down its adulation and be skeptical.

Mr. Giridharadas said he would like to see philanthropists make gifts instead to organizations that shake up the social order. “The kind of giving I advocate is ‘being a traitor to your class’ giving,” he said.

Unlike Mr. Giridharadas, who supports shaking up norms, Mr. Berggruen is focused on helping democracies work better by drawing on the best philanthropic traditions.

“What philanthropists have done in America is much more to put their money to use in society,” he said. “The state has a role, but Bill Gates can take more risk than the private sector can and take different kinds of risk than the state can take. In America, on the whole, that’s been beneficial.”

Aside from the backlash, the debate stirred by the donations to Notre-Dame has also raised hope.

“The takeaway form Notre-Dame is, if that can happen in 24 hours, the resources are there to take on major issues,” said Rob Hansen, founder of Goodnation, which measures the impact of donations. “Imagine instead of redirecting that billion dollars, we raise another billion dollars to other causes.”

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