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The growth of American philanthropy and inequality: A chat with Pablo Eisenberg

America is both the most charitable nation on the planet and the most unequal, in terms of the wealth gap between rich and poor, in the developed world.

Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

An expert who studies the philanthropic sector, Pablo Eisenberg, says these two facts are intrinsically related and should worry people. For this week’s Humanosphere podcast, we talk to Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, founder of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and a scholar who is focused on how well, or not, American philanthropy serves the public interest.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy says of Eisenberg that he is “one of the most influential and outspoken voices in philanthropy.” One of the reasons he is so influential, perhaps, is the outspoken part – Eisenberg doesn’t mince words and often takes on the rich and powerful. He is, for example, a frequent critic of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its lack of transparency and public accountability (a problem we reported on this week, but one that is hardly unique to the Gates Foundation).

Philanthropy is growing in America, with some predicting an enormous ‘transfer of wealth’ over the next decades and, along with that, an equally enormous shift of financial and political influence into an enterprise that is notoriously lacking in public accountability and adequate checks on power, Eisenberg says. The public concept of philanthropy is woefully naive, he said, and the media serves largely as cheerleaders to the rich.

It’s a long conversation, between Humanosphere’s Tom Paulson and the scholar, but Eisenberg keeps it entertaining. Like we said at the outset, he doesn’t mince words and this makes for an entertaining discussion about what might otherwise sound like an abstract academic argument. What’s at stake here, Eisenberg contends, is nothing less than another way in which democracy may be undermined by those in power. So listen and learn America!

And as usual, Tom and I discuss some highlights in the Humanosphere this week, starting with the request by the humanitarian aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders) for military assistance to deal with the still-expanding outbreak of Ebola across West Africa. That’s newsworthy because MSF tends to dislike having soldiers work with them, due to their desire to remain neutral (and not carry guns). We also discuss a new novel, The Golden Hour, written by a leading aid and development expert and former diplomat who gives great insight into geopolitics via a fun thriller.

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.