Answering the Outrage Over Elite Philanthropists’ Notre-Dame Donations

Over two billion Euros have been donated to restore the Notre-Dame in just a few days after the devastating fire that destroyed parts of the historic cathedral. Yet, the massive surge in donations was accompanied by a negative outcry against the philanthropists, questioning their integrity and calling them to donate to help the poor and not rebuild stones. Here are some answers to clarify the role of elite philanthropy during crises.

Left: Image by ian kelsall from Pixabay; Right: Photo by Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash

It is hard to miss the marvelous flower arrangements at the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, NY. The flowers are refreshed every week and were donated by the late Lila Acheson Wallace, who was one of the Museum’s largest single benefactors. Ms. Acheson Wallace considered flowers to be an essential art and donated a special endowment for their exhibit in perpetuity. Ms. Acheson Wallace, and her late husband, DeWitt Wallace, co-founded the famous Reader’s Digest magazine in 1922 and later on extended their philanthropic activities through the Wallace Foundation and the New York Community Trust.

I remembered the Metropolitan’s flowers donation when I read the furious backlash on social media, raging against France’s elite philanthropists’ quickly pledging to donate millions of Euros to the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Mega-tycoons, businesspeople, and companies have donated over two billion Euros to rebuild the cathedral. Among the famous donors are France’s wealthiest person, Bernard Arnault, Francois-Henri Pinault (second in wealth in France), and the Bettencourt family, each pledging to donate 200 million Euros, as well as other large companies such as Disney, Apple, Nissan, and many more.

The abrupt, large pledges evoked questions concerning the elite donors’ lack of interest in donating to the poor and to help minimize financial disparities; critics accuse the wealthy of donating to receive good publicity, enhance their reputations, and receive tax benefits. Some voices raised concern that the magnificent historic monument would be entangled forever with the names of the wealthy donors that helped reconstruct it. In short, the donations backfired, creating an angry discourse, asking why donors would hurry to donate to stones instead of helping people.

Two main critiques concerned the unexpected, swift large donations. One addressed the effortlessness with which the donors could afford to give hundreds of millions of Euros in just a click of a button, raising the question why the donors wouldn’t donate in the same manner to people in need. The second critique accused the donors of not paying their fair share in taxes. The tax argument was set by one of the Pinault family’s consultants, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, France’s former minister of Culture and Communication, who urged the French Parliament to grant a special 90% tax cut for the major donors (rather than the 60 percent that corporations normally get for charitable contributions in France), as an act of goodwill for their rapid action. Mr. Aillagon’s tweet sparked a fierce public discourse criticizing the wealthy’s generosity, responsibility, and intention to help the poor.

The wealthy’s donations sparked various questions challenging their role and the public’s expectation from them. Here are some answers to the questions raised about elite philanthropy’s role in society, and especially on the importance of donations to museums and historical sites, in addition to those made to people.

First, the tax issue: Should the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes? Yes.

Yes, of course. Just like any other citizen, the wealthy should pay their taxes. Taxes are an essential part of every democratic government’s ability to function.

Not only this, but the media should address taxation constantly when covering the wealthy and their donations and ask them about it in every interview. Taxation is a mandatory part of every functioning administration. Besides the civic duty to pay taxes, avoiding paying them while donating to charity creates a conflictual gap that damages both philanthropic virtue and the administration’s ability to operate and fulfill the public’s needs.

Governments offer tax exemptions to encourage philanthropic giving. It should not become a back channel to make the government pay in practice, while the donors enhance their positive reputations.

Second, can these donations solve poverty and hunger? Unfortunately, no.

Two billion Euros is not enough to solve the acute problems of poverty and hunger, nor would it deliver medication to those in need. What is important to understand is that solving these problems requires a systematic solution, involving macro-policy decisions, and governments and global actors’ enforcement of these policies.

Solving poverty or hunger could not result from decisions by a few elite donors to donate large sums of money. In fact, since the solution will have to be organized and coordinated with various official authorities and civil society organizations, the change is not a question of the amount of the money donated, but the donations’ effectivity and ability to steer actual change. In addition, if elite donors were to engage actively and directly in social policies, the public might protest against the intervention, arguing with considerable justice that their involvement is undemocratic and compromises the roles and responsibility of democratically elected governments.

Third, should the wealthy donate more? Absolutely, yes!

Donors should donate to various causes, both for helping people and to preserve art. Two billion Euros might not end poverty, but it could save many lives. The essential questions are how effective the donation is and whether it will create a long-term and substantial change. Even donations to projects which fail are important, as many nonprofits and foundations can learn from these experiences.

Fourth, should the public criticize elite donors? Yes.

It is important to constantly ask about the donors’ donations and taxation, as well as to evaluate their effectivity and general benefit for the public. This scrutiny is what constructs a healthy, vibrant, and flourishing public discourse, where the public can learn about social norms and be educated about the best ways to solve social problems.

One example of such an open public discourse is the current coverage of the Sackler family, their responsibility for the opioids epidemic and the refusal of their philanthropic donations around the world. These aspects are crucial for an open and informed public debate.

Fifth, could it be disturbing that elite philanthropists gain positive reputations because of their donations? Yes, it could be.

However, it is important to remember that in liberal Western democracies, mainly relying on Capitalism; inequality is inevitably part of the system. Inequality should be minimized as much as possible, allowing people from all groups of society as equal opportunities as possible. Preventing donations will not decrease the wealthy’s power to influence public policies. Encouraging regulation, instead of objecting to philanthropy, would be the most effective and useful solution, improving governments’ ability to tax and monitor the wealthy.

Sixth, France has separation of Church and State; does this mean that donations are the only possible way to rebuild Notre-Dame? Yes and no.

France does have separation of Church and State, which means that the State does not fund religious buildings, such as cathedrals and synagogues. However, this separation only applies to buildings built after 1905. Buildings which were built before (Notre-Dame was built in 1345) belong to the state. However, public opinion might not gladly accept the State’s funding of more than a billion Euros to reconstruct the cathedral, rather than investing in civic infrastructure, health, and welfare. Art and history will always be secondary to health, security, education, etc. when it comes to financial investments, and rightly so. This is precisely the intersection where civil society can sign up to share responsibility and donate to support the effort.

Seventh, why donate to a building when there are hungry people? Donors should donate to both.

Every donor gives to the areas they feel are important to them. For example, some donors donate to education, accessibility, medical treatment, welfare, research, space endeavors, art, and animal shelters. Each of these areas is important in developing humankind and the quality of life for many. As donors should donate to both aiding people and encouraging the arts, they should also develop their personal donation policy and promote effective solutions to problems that are dear to their hearts. As for museums and historical sites, for better or for worse, they are built on the backs of billionaires.

Notre-Dame is one of the world’s famous symbols of human achievement in civic unity, faith, architecture, engineering, and art. Its ruins are devastating and heartbreaking. Personally, I would like to live in a world where donors support the arts and history and are fighting poverty and aiding people in need. That would be the best combination of the love of mankind, the meaning of Philanthropy in Greek.

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