What is a democratic right, and what is a philanthropic gift?

There are 2,153 billionaires in the world – collectively worth $8.7 trillion, according to the latest Forbes estimates. More and more of them are committing significant amounts of their wealth to philanthropy or investments that seek a positive social impact as well as a financial return. While some see private money as indispensable to bridging the funding gap of around $5 to $7 trillion required annually to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, others worry about the deeper implications that this approach has for the way we think about the role and responsibility of the state in providing public services in a fair and just society. Others yet go even further, arguing that tax-subsidised philanthropy is actually a subversion of government – for example, in 2014 tax expenditures for charitable giving cost the US Treasury more than $50 billion, funding that could have been directed by government according to the democratic wishes of citizens.

Is philanthropy on this scale diminishing or undermining the role of government when it comes to addressing entrenched social problems? Is large scale giving by wealthy elites stopping deeper questions about structural inequality in society and legitimising a system that favours disproportionately the super-rich? Can more transparency around philanthropic giving and more effective frameworks for cross-sector collaboration help strengthen public accountability?

The GO Lab is hosting a conversation with Tom Hall, Global Head of Philanthropy Services at UBS, and Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Philosophy and Blavatnik Chair in Public Policy, on the practical and ethical implications of these emerging trends in philanthropy and impact investing, and how government can work with philanthropists and businesses to tackle the most pressing challenges in society. The discussion will be moderated by Mara Airoldi, Director of the Government Outcomes Lab.