When is philanthropy problematic?

This question has been on my mind in recent months as I’ve read books and watched films about three philanthropists who amassed wealth in dubious ways.

1. The case of Andrew Carnegie.

“To the Stars through Difficulties” is a new book by Kansas author Romalyn Tilghman.

I recently read Tilghman’s delightful novel and enjoyed hearing her discuss it recently at a regular meeting of Vital Conversations, a group sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council that hosts intentional conversations to help people work together to form a better community.

The Carnegie libraries of Kansas are the backdrop of Tilghman’s novel.

Early on, she informs her readers that industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built 59 libraries in Kansas in the early 1900s and that “he gave the country 1,689 libraries that served thirty-five million people by 1919.”

That is impressive philanthropy! And it is only part of what Carnegie did with his great wealth.

But on the same page, Tilghman acknowledges Carnegie’s “despicable treatment of mineworkers, including the murder of seven men in his attempt to break up the union,” and reports that some Kansas communities “refused to take his tainted money even for the promise of a library.”

She then rightly states that Carnegie was “both a philanthropist and robber baron.”

2. The case of John D. Rockefeller.

Andrew Carnegie vied with John D. Rockefeller as being the richest man in the world. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller (1839-1937) also started life in rather humble circumstances but through hard work, ingenuity and shrewd business deals, he also became a man of great wealth.

From boyhood and throughout his lifetime, Rockefeller was a faithful Baptist church member – and a tither. From his early 50s, he deliberately began his philanthropic activities.

A chapter in Ellen Greenman Coffey’s small book about John D. Rockefeller is titled “The Pious Robber Baron.”

In a later chapter, “An Investment in Good Works,” Greenman tells of Rockefeller’s increasing involvement in giving his money away under the tutelage of Frederick T. Gates, a young Baptist minister whom he employed.

Among the many projects Gates (1853-1929) led his boss to support, one of the best known is the Rockefeller Foundation, established in 1913 after years of planning.

Rockefeller’s philanthropic work, however, was partly in response to the negative publicity he had suffered from Ida Tarbell’s 1904 book, “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” in which she depicted Rockefeller as “miserly, money-grabbing and viciously effective at monopolizing the oil trade.”

3. The case of Joan Kroc.

Recently, my wife, June, and I watched “The Founder,” the 2016 movie about Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s restaurants into the wealthiest fast food chain in the world – but not without the use of devious means.

Joan was Kroc’s third wife. They married in 1969 when Ray was 67 years old; she inherited his wealth after his death in 1984.

Their story is told in Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book titled “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.”

Joan’s $1.5 billion gift to The Salvation Army is said to be the largest philanthropic gift ever made by an individual in the U.S. The bulk of that gift has been used to build and maintain 26 Kroc Centers throughout the country.

Very summarily, here are some problems with philanthropy, clearly seen in the three people mentioned above:

1. There is a problem of how the wealth of the philanthropists is gained, particularly when it is by exploitation of workers and shrewd (bordering on illegal) business practices.

2. Then, most philanthropists tend to aggrandize themselves in their charitable giving. Everyone knows of Carnegie libraries, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Kroc centers.

3. And then consider these insightful words by William Jewett Tucker, a contemporary critic of Carnegie. “I can conceive of no greater mistake, more disastrous in the end to religion if not to society, than of trying to make charity do the work of justice.”

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, The View from This Seat, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.

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