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A better way for billionaires who want to make massive donations to benefit society

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Professor of Management & Organizations; Professor of Environment & Sustainability; Holcim (US), Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan
Andrew J. Hoffman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, announced on Instagram in November 2020 that he was giving 16 organizations a total of about US$800 million for a wide array of climate-protecting work.
This money will help pay to restore and protect ecosystems in Colombia, Fiji, Madagascar and Mexico, launch a satellite to detect methane pollution, build carbon-trading markets, speed up the replacement of the nation’s fossil-fueled commercial trucks with electric vehicles and update the U.S. electrical grid so it can rely more heavily on renewable energy.
It was just the first installment of the $10 billion the Amazon founder and CEO pledged in February 2020 that he would give to fight climate change.
For now, that sum would constitute about 5% of his net worth of $203 billion. I teach a course called Business in Democracy: Advocacy, Lobbying and the Public Interest, which examines the ways that businesses and their leaders influence public policy for both good and ill. This kind of a gift is emblematic of the broader issue of money and the ways it clouds our society’s ability to address the fundamental challenges we face.

Rather than gush over Bezos for his generosity in addressing what he and many scientists consider an existential threat, I think it’s more appropriate to ask what kind of a political model his actions support and perpetuate – and how that model allows him to make such a large donation.
As I argue in my latest book, “Management as a Calling,” corporate clout and money from extremely wealthy people have overwhelmed the nation’s political process and we need a corrective. That is, future business leaders need to learn how to approach political influence as a public service and not individual gamesmanship.
The largest oil and gas companies alone spend nearly $200 million on lobbying yearly to delay, control or block policies aimed at tackling climate change.
This kind of spending puts sand in the gears of our political process, rendering it so weak and fractious that it can no longer function as a serious arbiter of public interest. Because Bezos is pumping some of his fortune into a system that is broken, his donations – while admirable – will not solve this overarching problem.
It’s of course a good thing that Bezos, like many other billionaires, wants to use his surplus wealth to address climate change and other great challenges our society faces.
But what these major donors should do if they truly believe in those goals, ironically, is use their economic and political power to insulate politics and policymaking from the influence of folks like themselves.
The business world has been encroaching into U.S. political institutions and public debates for years.
Salesforce, a $17 billion software company, entered the debate over gay marriage debate legislation by pressuring the Indiana legislature to change proposed LGBTQ policies.
Delta Airlines entered the gun control debate by curtailing flight discounts to National Rifle Association members in the wake of mass shootings.
The financial firms Blackrock and JPMorgan Chase took a stand on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by canceling their participation in important meetings in Saudi Arabia, at least for a while.
Hobby Lobby, a craft and decor store chain, entered the reproductive rights debate by challenging the Affordable Care Act on grounds that having to contribute to health insurance for its employees that covered some forms of birth control violated the religious beliefs of the company’s leaders.
This corporate presence can turn public debates into battles between dueling piles of money.
Everyone else may take sides, cheering when donors take actions that align with their values and jeering when they take actions that are not. All the while, the spending war escalates.
This trend makes a mockery of democracy because corporate leaders are not elected or accountable to the broader public.
When Salesforce founder Marc Benioff took a stand on LGBTQ rights, he wrote in his book “Trailblazer” that some “chastised me for putting my own values ahead of shareholder value.”
But he then defended his actions to challenge then Indiana Governor Mike Pence, citing data from global public relations firm Weber Shandwick that customers will pay more for products and services from companies that drive positive social and environmental impact.
In other words, he felt that promoting gay rights can be good for his business. Even if you agree with Benioff on this issue, how do you feel about the way he, and other billionaires like him, leverage their wealth to promote social issues and increase profits?
Bezos’ fairly recent focus on philanthropy could divert attention and take some pressure off of some of his company’s worst practices.
Aside from concerns that Amazon is anti-competitive, the U.S. government is investigating Amazon for labor violations. Its workers around the world are staging protests, and the company has retaliated by reportedly paying contractors to spy on them.
Amazon paid nothing at all in U.S. federal income tax in 2018 on the more than $11 billion it made in profits. Then, it even received a $129 million tax rebate from the Republican tax cuts of 2017. The corporation was not alone: 60 profitable Fortune 500 companies paid zero federal income taxes in 2018, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
And yet Bezos’ new climate charity – aptly named after himself, the Bezos Earth Fund – will likely reduce his tax burden.
In the words of political theorist Rob Reich, “the citizens of the United States are collectively subsidizing, through foregone tax collection, the giving preferences of the wealthy.”
At the same time, the federal minimum wage has remained unchanged at $7.25 per hour since 2009. Income inequality is the most extreme it’s been since 1929, and Bezos is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026. It should come as no surprise that 65% of Americans believe the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.
And that’s where the deeper problem lies.
The total amount spent on corporate lobbying in 2018 reached $3.4 billion.
The richest Americans are shelling out some of their own considerable wealth to alter the democratic process. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for example, singlehandedly gave over $100 million to political candidates in 2018.
This is contributing to starkly competing factions and legislative gridlock that leaves Congress unable to pass even the most rudimentary policies that might slow the pace of climate change.
It’s also bolstering cynicism, which corrodes our democratic institutions. Only 19% of Americans say they trust the government, down from 73% in 1958, according to the Pew Research Center.
Markets can’t function properly when government doesn’t work.
It’s great that the industrial magnate and donor Charles Koch now regrets the outsized political influence his money bought for him and his late brother, David. (In case you missed it, he has plainly stated: “Boy, did we screw up.”)
But I believe that it’s time for more than apologies; it’s time for wealthy individuals and corporations to fix the system that they helped create that allows them so much power.
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In 2020, the globe’s top business, political and economic leaders who gathered in Switzerland at the annual World Economic Forum issued a promising proclamation. Their “Davos Manifesto” asserted that corporations should serve “society at large,” pay their “fair share of taxes” and act as stewards of the “environmental and material universe for future generations.”
This assertion mirrors statements by BlackRock and the Business Roundtable, a group that represents the most powerful U.S. companies.
These statements open the door for billionaires like Jeff Bezos and the corporations they control to put such aspirations into action. Should they take that step, it might eventually allow voters and informed politicians to make decisions free from the corrosive influence of extreme wealth.
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What the $25 billion the biggest US donors gave in 2020 says about high-dollar charity today

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Associate Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Leadership, Seattle University
Associate Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University
David Campbell is vice chair of the Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation in Binghamton, New York.
Elizabeth J. Dale has received funding from the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation via Indiana University and The Giving USA Foundation for her research on philanthropy. The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and do not reflect policy stances of Seattle University.
Jasmine McGinnis Johnson is a Visiting Fellow at Urban Institute, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

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Editor’s note: According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top 50 Americans who gave the most to charity in 2020 committed to giving a total of US$24.7 billion to hospitals, homeless shelters, universities, museums and more – a boost of roughly 54% from 2019 levels. David Campbell, Elizabeth Dale and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, three scholars of philanthropy, assess what these gifts mean, the possible motivations behind them and what they hope to see in the future in terms of charitable giving in the United States.
Campbell: Pandemic. Pandemic. Pandemic. The share of giving that went to social service nonprofits, food banks and homelessness assistance groups rose sharply. At the same time, performing arts organizations, largely shut down as a result of the pandemic and starved of revenue from ticket sales, received more support from big donors in 2020 than in 2019, with charitable gifts and pledges to them increasing to $65 million from $51 million.
McGinnis Johnson: Likewise, Racial justice. Racial justice. Racial justice.
For example, basketball legend Michael Jordan declared that he would personally give at least $50 million to racial equity and education causes over the next decade, with his footwear and clothing company kicking in another $50 million. Also, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillan gave a total of $120 million divided into three equal gifts to Morehouse College, Spelman College and UNCF – the group previously called United Negro College Fund that pays for students to attend historically black colleges and universities. Neither Jordan nor Hastings and Quillan, who said their increased awareness about the country’s racial injustices and the deaths of Black people in police custody inspired them to give, made the Chronicle’s list of top donors in 2019.
These and other unusually large gifts taking aim at racial injustice, and other forms of social injustice (not counting HBCU donations), totaled $66 million in 2020. But I had anticipated that there would be even more of this giving by the biggest donors.

Dale: In particular, MacKenzie Scott – Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife – made many gifts to HBCUs. These donations included $50 million for Prairie View A&M University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Morgan State University. In addition to racial justice, her philanthropy has raised the profile of causes like civic engagement, community development and the need to address the medical debt crisis in the U.S. Scott was the second-largest donor for the year, after Bezos. Combined, their commitments totaled nearly $16 billion. Neither made the top 50 in 2019.
Until now, the ultra-rich haven’t typically supported causes like these. Instead, extremely wealthy donors have historically been more inclined to fund higher education and health care, largely with big donations to elite universities, hospitals and arts institutions like museums and operas.
The other aspect that strikes me is the “who” part of the list. There are many new faces: Eight of the 20 top donors didn’t make an appearance on the Philanthropy 50 list for their 2019 giving.

McGinnis Johnson: A total of about $14 billion of this giving went to foundations led by the givers themselves and donor-advised funds, which work somewhat like foundations in that donors set money aside for charity before they actually give those funds to nonprofits. When wealthy people set aside money this way, they receive tax benefits before giving those funds. In a troubling development, some foundations have begun to put some of their disbursed money, which was already designated for charity, into donor-advised funds rather than addressing today’s many urgent needs, such as alleviating hunger and staving off evictions amid a major economic crisis.
Dale: This list reminds me of the limits of philanthropy, especially with a problem as widespread as the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if you add all of the social service gifts together, including donations to food banks, efforts to help the homeless and gifts to pay off medical debt, it adds up to only about $700 million. Compared to the trillions of dollars in relief the government is providing individuals and small businesses for economic problems that began in 2020, you can see that philanthropy from the very wealthiest Americans doesn’t come close to meeting all of the nation’s needs.
One possible way Congress could encourage more donations is by increasing the share of assets that foundations must give away every year. A coalition of wealthy donors including Walt Disney Co. heiress Abigail Disney and at least two members of the Pritzker family – heirs to the Hyatt fortune – supports this change.

McGinnis Johnson: I think that major gifts in support of racial and social justice causes may continue. I also expect to see the emergence of new donors spurred on by these crises who can give in new and different ways. And I hope that more wealthy donors begin to pay more attention to leadership, by supporting organizations led by people of color.
Campbell: Donors like MacKenzie Scott and Susan Sandler – the heir to a fortune made in the home-mortgage business – and some foundations are going out of their way to invest in people, places and organizations that have long been ignored or marginalized.
Also, their public statements about their giving, along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s spreadsheet listing his donations, have raised the bar for transparency in philanthropy.
I believe these new approaches can engage the public in an ongoing debate about the best way to use charitable dollars to build a better world. The question is, will other wealthy donors follow their lead?
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New steps the government’s taking toward COVID-19 relief could help fight hunger

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Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond
Tracy Roof does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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President Joe Biden has pledged to tackle hunger as part of his administration’s efforts to alleviate poverty.
“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden declared on his second full day in office, invoking the “values of our nation.”
One way his administration aims to accomplish this goal is by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the country’s largest anti-hunger program. I’m researching this program, long known as food stamps but today referred to as SNAP, for an upcoming book. The program helps struggling families while boosting the economy during downturns.
As Biden’s presidency gets underway, I’m watching to see not only whether the government expands the amount of aid this program provides people in need today, but whether there are lasting changes to SNAP and other anti-poverty policies that could reduce hunger in the future.
Unlike the Trump administration, Biden’s team is eager to find ways to maximize the use of SNAP to fight poverty during the pandemic and beyond.
Former President Donald Trump criticized the large number of people who remained on SNAP after the last recession, which occurred partly because poverty rates remained high even as unemployment went down. Believing that the program discouraged work, Trump repeatedly tried but failed to limit who could get SNAP.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of people enrolled in SNAP soared again. Spending on the program surged even more because the government temporarily let all beneficiaries get the maximum amount of benefits.
Government aid through SNAP totaled a record US$85.6 billion in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 2020. That money helped feed around 44 million people, up from 35 million a year earlier.
But until recently there was no extra help for the roughly 40% of the people who were already getting the maximum benefits because of their very low incomes. Congress changed that when it approved a 15% increase for all SNAP recipients as part of the December 2020 $900 billion relief package. That benefits boost started the following month.

Despite SNAP’s expansion and additional aid flowing to food banks from government assistance and many high-profile donations to food banks and food pantries by some of the richest Americans, hunger has remained a problem throughout the pandemic.
By January 2021, a government survey found that some 11% of adults, and more than 1 in 7 of all U.S. households with children, said they were having trouble getting enough to eat – well above pre-pandemic levels. The problem is even worse for people of color.
Along with the 15% increase in SNAP benefits Congress approved in December 2020, which initially was to last for six months, were changes to make it easier for college students and those on unemployment benefits to get SNAP.
Biden wants to offer Americans who face economic hardship additional help. He has proposed extending the SNAP increase for at least another three months, through September 2021. Further, he has pledged to work with Congress to tie benefit increases to the health of the economy and the people so that Congress would not have to take action for extra help to kick in.
If Congress adopted such an approach, I believe vulnerable families would no longer be at the mercy of the kind of political squabbling that has delayed additional help during the pandemic.
Biden also signed an executive order directing federal agencies to try to do more for the poorest families through SNAP. In addition, his administration is trying to make it easier for states to send more help to families with children who are missing free or reduced-price meals at school or who are too young to attend.
The proposed SNAP changes are among many temporary benefit increases Biden and others have recently outlined, such as in unemployment benefits and new tax credits for families with children.
Columbia University researchers estimate that a combination of Biden’s proposals could reduce poverty in 2021 by almost 30% and halve the number of U.S. children living in poverty. If successful, this could launch a longer-term transformation in anti-poverty policies.
Many advocates of policies that help the poor have long argued that SNAP benefits are too stingy to provide enough nutritious food for an adequate diet.
On average, people on SNAP use over three-fourths of their benefits by the middle of the month – even in a strong economy. As a result, many SNAP recipients run out of benefits and regularly turn to food banks. In fact, more than 40% of food bank clients are enrolled in SNAP.
Why don’t these benefits fill more gaps?
Technically, food stamp recipients are expected to spend 30% of their own income on food. If they have income, as most SNAP recipients do, their benefits are calculated by reducing the maximum benefit for their family size by 30% of the value of their income after deductions for things like child care. But many financially stressed families don’t feel they can afford to spend that much on food.
Another problem is how the maximum benefit is set. It is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, devised by the Department of Agriculture in 1975 as “a national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.”
Despite changes to reflect new official nutritional recommendations, the government has maintained the same inflation-adjusted cap on spending in place for decades. As a result, the plan relies on unreasonable and outdated assumptions that underestimate average meal costs, especially in areas with high food prices.
One of Biden’s executive orders instructs the USDA to carry out an until-now overlooked mandate that could fix this problem, potentially increasing the amount of SNAP benefits during good times and bad.
To be sure, it’s unclear what will happen with SNAP benefits.
Presidents have often used emergencies to make lasting policy changes, but big expansions in anti-poverty programs have historically been passed with large Democratic majorities in Congress as in the New Deal in the 1930s and the War on Poverty in the 1960s.
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Today, the Senate is evenly split, with Democrats wielding control through Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote in that chamber. The Democratic majority in the House is also narrow.
Just as Trump failed at his efforts to cut many anti-poverty programs, Biden may not succeed in expanding them. But his proposed changes reflect a big shift in how the government uses policies to help Americans in need.
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Mothers who earned straight A’s in high school manage the same number of employees as fathers who got failing grades

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Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina – Charlotte
Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
Mothers who showed the most academic promise in high school have the same leadership opportunities as fathers who performed the worst, according to our new peer-reviewed study. That is, in their early-to-mid careers, mothers who got straight A’s end up overseeing a similar number of employees as men who got F’s.
To reach these conclusions, we used a U.S. national survey that since 1979 has tracked a group of baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964. We focused on the 5,000 or so participants for whom researchers obtained high school transcripts and then compared the data with their responses to career-focused surveys taken over an 11-year period from 1988 to 1998 – a period when most of them were in their 30s.
Overall, our results showed that men manage more employees than women regardless of their GPA. For participants without children, the leadership gap between men and women was fairly constant across GPA levels, with men managing about two to three workers more on average.
What was most interesting to us is what we learned when we focused only on parents. Fathers with 4.0 GPAs reported overseeing an average of 19 people, compared with 10 for childless men with similar grades and about five for fathers with a 1.0 or less. In contrast, the best-performing mothers managed fewer than five people, compared with seven for childless women with top GPAs and three for mothers with the worst grades.

In other words, becoming a parent boosts leadership opportunities for men while diminishing them for women. Even attaining a college or advanced degree had the same effect, helping fathers but doing little for mothers. Other research reveals that men have a faster route to leadership positions across occupations, including in stereotypically feminine fields such as human resources and health care.
Recent economics research has highlighted “lost Einsteins” – the really smart students from poor families who never become inventors because they don’t receive the same advantages and support that even low-achieving kids from rich families do.
The same can be said for women, whose talents have long been underutilized by corporate America. Our research showed that even the most talented and brightest women experience diminished leadership prospects on account of gender-related barriers, especially if they became mothers.
But the problem isn’t motherhood or fatherhood per se. Past research has shown it’s more about how society views mothers and fathers and the associated stereotypes that contribute to gendered outcomes. For example, fathers could be getting more leadership opportunities because employers stereotype them as better fits for positions that emphasize authority, long work hours and travel. Mothers, on the other hand, may see fewer chances because employers falsely believe they are less committed or competent.
Employers could help overcome this problem by reviewing how they evaluate workers and adopting fairer promotion practices that are more likely to recognize women’s talent. More family-friendly policies such as paid leave and subsidized child care could also help.
Given the limits of our sample, we do not know how our findings translate to younger groups, such as millennials. But given that progress toward equality in the workplace has slowed or even stalled on certain measures in recent decades, we believe it’s likely that the leadership prospects of academically gifted women haven’t improved much.
COVID-19 has harmed women’s employment and productivity more than men’s, particularly among parents because of a lack of child care support. We plan to conduct additional research to better understand how women’s leadership opportunities may have been affected by the pandemic.
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