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Amy Schiller is a journalist and academic who spent many years working in philanthropy. Her new book, The Price of Humanity (Melville House, 2023), is an attempt to rescue philanthropy from its progressive decline into vanity projects that drive wealth inequality. She sat down with Rachel Sherman to discuss effective altruism, Mackenzie Scott’s paradigm shift, and why we should focus on human flourishing.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Sherman: Can you start by laying out your book’s critique of current philanthropy?
Amy Schiller: For an activity that literally means “love of humanity,” philanthropy today is actually fairly dehumanizing. Number one, there’s the objectification of beneficiaries. The less actual contact you have with people who philanthropy is benefiting, the more abstracted and objectified they become as objects of pity. Or they’re objects of this kind of abstract calculation: “Are these people going to improve at a level that makes my investment worth it?”
In focusing on objectification, abstraction, and quantification, philanthropy loses sight of the recreational, non-utilitarian practices that keep us uniquely human. It more closely resembles the methods of wealth accumulation that contemporary philanthropists totalize into a complete worldview—in the same way finance and tech are very removed from the actual reality of people who are their consumers or beneficiaries. They’ve all just become numbers on a screen. Philanthropy can operate from a different sensibility than the market, and often on a different timescale than government. But as we currently practice it, where philanthropy should be funding the things that keep us human and teach us how to value other human beings, it’s actually eroding and flattening those connections.
Sherman: Could you talk about the critique you have of the idea of saving lives as well as the idea that philanthropy should offer “bang for your buck”?
Schiller: Over the last 20 to 30 years this kind of financial vocabulary has crept more and more into philanthropic discourse. It happened first to something called “venture philanthropy,” which asked: How can we make nonprofits operate more like businesses? And nobody seemed to pause and hear the immediate contradiction in those terms. Why can’t we make this non-revenue-generating thing into a revenue-generating business? Because they serve two different purposes! One of them is valuing something different than the generating of profit.
This way of thinking says, I don’t want my philanthropy to just sustain something or go into some group effort to keep a park clean and open to the public. I want to know that my money had this specific impact with this specific number of people who now earn this much more money or have this much more quality of life, with the specificity of the algorithms becoming more and more finely grained.
So the idea of “bang for your buck” has been evolving over time, and it’s reached its culmination in effective altruism, which I think of as global labor population management—“altruism” that maximizes the number of economically productive actors in the world. That’s why we would save lives: so that those lives can continue to produce wealth. Not for the value of those lives in themselves.
To call that cynical definition of humanity “benevolence” feels dystopian and dismal.
Sherman: According to this view, something that’s unquantifiable is not as good to give as something that is. How do we measure the enjoyment however many people get out of a park versus how many lives are being saved by mosquito nets somewhere? Enjoying a park is not as important as being alive, as not dying from malaria.
Schiller: Peter Singer, the eminence grise of effective altruism, published an article that asked, How many lives is Notre Dame [cathedral] worth? And went through and did the math with a totally straight face. This is taking all modalities of the human experience and comparing them to the coefficient of death. That feels like the dehumanization coming in to say nothing matters except that you are alive and able to be economically productive. It’s a very narrow vision of what constitutes humanity.
Sherman: You also critique this idea of philanthropy as the “backup welfare state.” Instead of it being philanthropy’s job to pick up the slack where the state fails to meet basic needs, you propose a number of counterintuitive moves, which I appreciate. The main one is saying that there’s such a thing as the common good. And part of that common good means being human in all these different ways: going to see music, having art in your life, spending time in nature.
Schiller: I define the “common good” as flourishing. And you do hear this a lot: “We don’t want to just survive. We want to thrive. We want to live in dignity.” I think flourishing is a really important standard to set, because it’s robust, it’s ambitious. We need to set our sights that high because we’re fighting against forces that would limit us to nothing more than our work product.
Here in New York City we just had Marathon Sunday, and as many people will say, it’s one of my favorite days in New York. It’s that sweet spot of what used to be called civil society. Of course there’s public dollars that go into police presence or other safety measures. But it’s also millions of people in the streets, celebrating together, and you see something powerful happening there that people really respond to, that does not belong in the realm of market, doesn’t belong squarely in the realm of government. That’s a common good.
I see the beauty of philanthropy in supporting things that by their very existence affirm that all people are worthwhile. They deserve leisure, they deserve knowledge, they deserve nature. Carnegie insisted that the libraries he built be extremely beautiful, “palaces for the people.” And there is something ennobling about the grandeur of those structures, and it’s present in people’s testimonies about what it feels like to go to a beautiful library.
Or there’s the difference between Penn Station and Grand Central. People have real attachment to Grand Central because of its design, its aesthetic, and its whole raison d’etre. That space does more than just allow you to catch a train. Philanthropy is for elevating things like train stations into spaces and experiences that feel like Grand Central.
Sherman: Why shouldn’t the state also be responsible for that?
Schiller: First of all, there’s the sheer impossibility of reaching that horizon. And why wouldn’t we want to have something that is protected from the contingencies of who’s in government—and something that everyone can personally participate in? I talk about the Statue of Liberty in the book and how a bunch of working and lower class people contributed very small amounts to putting it up. Pulitzer said, “This statue should not just be a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America. This is something for all of us and installed by all of us.” This is a really important story: it matters that people feel like they have contributed to its existence and see themselves reflected in it.
Sherman: So if I’m a philanthropist, am I going to read this book and give a bunch of money to libraries instead of giving it to food pantries, and then the food pantries shut down and people starve?
Schiller: I thought about that, and that’s why I staggered the phases of how to fix philanthropy. If philanthropy is for flourishing, then it requires us to make more robust demands of our government.
Phase one is redefining our political economy. I’ve had a longstanding issue with the wholesale transfer of [basic welfare] expectations away from democratic institutions to private actors. But what comes next? As Hannah Arendt asks: After the class struggle that Marx thinks defines us as human beings is resolved, what’s left to give human civilization its value and its sense of purpose?
In the phase that comes next, I’d like to see us rebuild the social infrastructure that supports those encounters and connections that might make our society feel a bit more cohesive. Right now, social infrastructure is in decline. This is partly because it doesn’t fit into that philanthropic paradigm, because as you pointed out in the example of the park, we can’t quantify what social infrastructure’s effects are.
Sherman: Can you talk about the giving wage and what that is?
Schiller: In the book, I describe a giving wage as a counterpart to the living wage. A living wage sounds nice, but it is really a subsistence wage—adjusted to be commensurate with inflation and adequate to cover the basic costs. My vision is that a giving wage would address economic inequality and allow people the security to give back.
Sherman: Do you think that it makes sense to have charitable giving be tax deductible? It is, of course, being subsidized by the state and by other taxpayers.
Schiller: I am not going to go so far as to reject government incentives for giving. It’s totally possible to get to a point where we have everyone’s needs met through our social welfare services and sufficient wages that we don’t need extra rewards for giving. While we’re not there yet, I would like the incentive structure geared more towards lower level givers. Giving if you’re middle income is a proportionally bigger deal than if you’re upper income.
Sherman: One of the things in the social justice philanthropy space I am studying is really about donors giving up control.
Schiller: That’s the thing that I admire the most about Mackenzie Scott’s giving. She could impose all the controls she wanted but instead she’s giving away operating funds. Man, talk to anyone who’s ever fundraised before—it’s like, Oh my god, general operating support, minimal reporting requirements, you don’t have to do the dog and pony show? It’s definitely paradigm shifting.
I hope that her experiment influences other people to give in that way. I want people who have philanthropic capacity to stop seeing themselves as these kind of sovereign investors and sovereign consumers and see themselves as members of an embedded community.
I see people starting to think differently, like, Okay, we’re really putting our grantees through it, and we should maybe scale back our expectations that really have a lot to do with our own need for reassurance. To me, there’s something a bit fussy and self-indulgent about the desire for the donor to be personally involved that’s really just asking a lot of people to give you attention and validation.
Sherman: You also talk about her failure to address a distribution of power.
Schiller: [Mackenzie Scott’s] giving methodology is setting a new standard, but she doesn’t have politics yet. What would be really cool is if she put a billion dollars into the Amazon worker strike fund. I think philanthropy needs to get closer to asking, How can I transfer power to those harmed by injustices rather than paying out some sort of settlement?
Sherman: What should rich people do now? Do you think now is the moment for wealthy people to give to libraries, or should they be giving to transformative system change?
Schiller: Both. One is your political giving, one is your philanthropy. You should be doing some interventions upstream and some interventions downstream. In political giving, for instance, you want to seed a bunch of left pro-labor candidates and important house races; I would put strike funds in this category as well. Or you give to places that transform grassroots demands into legislation.
That’s different from the work you can do in your own community—or a network of places—to make sure that they have the social infrastructure that they need. That’s an evergreen requirement. To ensure that the civil society that you’re part of is robust, allocate a certain percentage of your funding to social infrastructure, and then allocate a certain percentage for more confrontational activities.
Sherman: So in some ways, you fund the world that you have and the world that you want. Fund things that redistribute power, and fund things that make the experience of being alive better for everybody.
Schiller: That’s a nice way to put it. Philanthropy is for the world you want to have. We should demand more from our government–and we should cherish philanthropy’s separate ability to preserve and protect those things that keep us human and focus our intentions on allowing it to do that.
Read an excerpt from The Price of Humanity, courtesy of Amy Schiller and Melville House.
Amy Schiller is a Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College and author of The Price of Humanity (Melville House, 2023).
Rachel Sherman is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College.