Opinion staff column

Who deserves to be a philanthropist?

The conversation surrounding David Koch’s death should help us rethink charity

After multibillionaire and MIT Corporation lifetime member David H. Koch ’62 passed away last week, media outlets exploded with reports on this passing of the 11th richest person in the world, who according to Forbes had a net worth of $50.5 billion in March 2019. Many of these accounts emphasized the numerous contributions Koch made to different causes which, according to the Koch Family Foundations website, amount to $1.2 billion dollars. MIT News quoted Robert Millard, chair of the MIT Corporation, who stated, “David Koch was a model philanthropist who funded initiatives across a swath of cultural, scientific, and medical institutions.”

I am troubled by how we choose to bestow titles like “model philanthropist” and the impact this labeling has on the way our generation and future generations choose to help others. While Koch’s donations were large in absolute terms, they made up a small proportion of his total wealth. If we assume the Forbes and Koch Family Foundation numbers are correct, then at his passing, Koch had donated about 2.3 percent of his total wealth. This is slightly lower than 2.6 percent, which is the average amount of income households in the US give. While this comparison is not perfect (since unrealized capital gains are included in wealth but not in income), it suggests that Koch was around average in his generosity relative to other American households.

Many better examples exist. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have committed to giving away 99 percent of their Facebook shares. Bill and Melinda Gates have committed practically their entire net worth of $90 billion to humanitarian causes. In fact, there are over 200 billionaires who have committed to giving a majority of their wealth away, often to causes that lift up society’s most vulnerable populations. Why should mediocre be our model?

Philanthropy, literally “love of humanity,” should also be based on the intention behind and the impact of a donation. Donating to causes that would benefit people more different than oneself, like donations from North America going to research on neglected tropical diseases, which the Gates Foundation supported, might indicate a wider sense of empathy (and therefore a love of all humanity) than if one primarily donated to their alma mater and to political ideologies they agreed with.

In addition, a model philanthropist would want to ensure all of their actions support a better world. For example, the benefit of funding a cancer research institute, like Koch did at MIT, might be offset by sitting on the board of the Cato Institute, which Koch also did, as it advocated for weakening regulations of airborne particulate matter, which the World Health Organization estimates causes 29 percent of lung cancer deaths worldwide. Despite his intentions of helping understand and cure cancer, his other actions may have inadvertently created more of it. A more effective donor would be willing to change their job, investments, and lifestyle to better align with the initiatives that they support. 

At MIT, we should encourage people to give money to benefit society, but also hold these potential donors to high standards. When we decide to publicize a donor, we should stipulate exceptional generosity. For example, MIT could make a policy that to get a named building, one must show they consistently donate to beneficial programs at least 12 percent of their annual income, which is the average donation amount from American households that earn less than $25,000/year. We should expect even more from these donors, given they have a larger fraction of disposable income than those living below the poverty line.

To ensure upstanding moral characteristics of donors, MIT needs a working review process for would-be donors, which can be done in two parts. First, MIT should reduce conflicts of interest, increase transparency, and eliminate overlap between review stages when evaluating high-risk foreign engagements, as highlighted by an editorial in the Faculty Newsletter. MIT could then expand or adapt this effective review process for donations or grants above a certain threshold. By setting high expectations for donors, MIT can tell the world that with great monetary power comes an even greater obligation to help others.