Last week, in our discussion of The Theory of the Leisure Class, we decided to add “conspicuous philanthropy” to Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous leisure and consumption. I used Bill Gates as an example.
One of the students just sent me a link to Linsey McGoey’s article on a relatively new dimension of philanthropy, the “business of altruism”—the growing trend of foundation grants directed towards private corporations.
And, as it turns out, the Gates Foundation is there, too:
In 2014, the Gates Foundation announced an $11 million grant to Mastercard to establish a financial inclusion “lab” in Nairobi, Kenya. The grant will last three years, after which Mastercard has indicated that, should the venture prove sufficiently lucrative, the company may be willing to foot the bill for further financial expansion in the region.
Mastercard’s management rationalized the grant in economic terms: investing in developing nations such as Kenya is risky, and there’s no guarantee that investments will pay off. As Mastercard explains in a press release, the money from the Gates Foundation enables the company to reach “new markets that may otherwise be commercially unviable.”
The gift to Mastercard — and it is a gift, rather than a loan or an equity investment — is the latest in a long list of donations that the Gates Foundation has offered to the world’s wealthiest corporations. From Vodafone, a British company notorious for paying zero corporate tax in the United Kingdom, to leading education companies such as Scholastic Inc., the Gates Foundation doesn’t simply partner with for-profit companies: it subsidizes their bottom-line. . .
The Gates Foundation has insisted that the private sector should play a stronger role in global development and now regularly subsidizes corporations who want to turn education, health care, and poverty alleviation into business ventures. A few years ago it seemed outlandish that a highly profitable company like Mastercard was receiving philanthropic grants.
But the the role of foundations is evolving rapidly and soon it may seem odd that charity was once designated for those living in poverty; those who have no housing; those fleeing situations of domestic abuse; those reliant on food banks; those bankrupted by skyrocketing medical bills, and not to a multinational company taking a taxpayer-funded bet on the idea that what the poor really need is a new credit card.
This new gospel of private-private justice, “with a nod to Adam Smith that market expansion is a naturally philanthropic process,” puts conspicuous philanthropy in a whole new light.