Some of the most nefarious villains in popular culture are philanthropists. The fabulous – and fabulously junky – Netflix series Lupin makes it clear. Philanthropists are smiling hypocrites with too much money and no scruples. Evil.
In Lupin, the villain that bedevils the titular gentleman thief hero (played by the supremely charismatic Omar Sy) is a corrupt, arms dealing industrialist who has cops and cabinet ministers in his pocket. The plot partly turns on the launch of his private foundation, which is notionally to be run by his only daughter. Instead it’s a façade for money-laundering. Super villain bad stuff.
Philanthropists and the Popular Imagination
When did philanthropists become a “thing” that attracts both attention and suspicion? What is it about the “philanthropist” that is fueling popular imagination? And does this negative mythology influence ordinary generous people who may be thinking about their estate plan?
When did the philanthropist villain emerge? Without full data to support me, I’d say the contemporary image of the “philanthropist” dates to the early 2000s. The early billionaire philanthrocapitalist, Gates-Buffet years. Suddenly, the word became mainstream – a ten-cent term for charitable donor.
My prime evidence is Bond movies. Quantum of Solace, 2008. Villain is a philanthropist. Before that Bond bad guys were just foreign and/or mega rich. Jump forward: Bill Gates caused COVID-19 and is injecting people with micro-chip laced vaccines. Q told me.
Reasons for the Bad Reputation
Three possible reasons why “philanthropist” may have become a synonym for baddie:
- The label has been overused and is perceived to be used to virtuously rebrand rich people. A form of reputation laundering – sometimes intergenerational – that obscures a multitude of sins.
- There is an image of glitzy party-people. This implies the philanthropy is more about society and personal pleasure. Put another way, philanthropy is about extrinsic rewards not intrinsic altruism. Self-indulgent, ego-driven stuff is the negative spin.
- There are miscellaneous other reasons. For example, the emphasis is on the wrong person when the donor gets more attention than the beneficiary. Or, when the size of cheque overwhelms the work in the community. Or when recipients are treated with condescension.
Issues for Estate Planning
Whatever the reasons, it’s valuable to understand that, while there are many outstanding philanthropists and foundations, the term comes with cultural baggage. I’ve had clients express discomfort with the term. They are intrinsic, values-based donors who don’t identify with the label or the associated myths. They stumble over my “philanthropic advisory services” title. They just want to give – without all the trappings.
It’s worthwhile to remember that prospective philanthropists go through a learning period. They need to understand not just technical and charitable issues, but also this new world they are engaging with and identity they may be assuming. I frequently reassure clients that significant giving and foundations are usually low-key affairs that involve minimal publicity. Through philanthropic and estate planning, each charitable person makes choices about how they give and are remembered – and it needs to feel right.