Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
Last week, I wrote a column criticizing the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation's $220 million donation to the University of Maryland, the largest such gift in our history. I was concerned the donation, as well as many similar initiatives at this university, indicated a STEM favoritism, beneficial neither to students nor the country. Some readers, including denizens of this university's charming subreddit, cried foul. A. James Clark was an engineer, they noted, so why should he be expected to give his money anywhere else?
The notion that we should expect individuals to only support causes and institutions they have personal affinities to is a disease rampant in philanthropic thought. Instead of helping the worst off, charity in the United States largely goes to institutions close to givers' hearts.
Folks may donate to their church, synagogue or mosque — and, indeed, 40 percent of charitable giving goes to religious organizations. An American might donate to her alma mater (19 percent of donations go to educational institutions) or a favorite museum (6 percent go to the arts). Because Clark's construction company operated in the D.C. area, the foundation bearing his name concentrates on philanthropic efforts within the community.
On the surface, this seems well and good. Most of us, after all, would commend someone for assisting their local church, school or art gallery. Powerful philanthropists past and present insist that giving should follow personal passion. "To us, it doesn't matter what people give, whether it's to the culture or to climate, humanity or societal issues," said Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation, the largest private charitable foundation charity in the world. And robber baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie disdained the notion that there be "general concurrence as to the best possible use of surplus wealth."
But here's the problem: When we encourage the rich to follow passions instead of morals, tycoons etch their names into academic buildings and the poor go unseen. Since the uber-rich constitute an outsized portion of philanthropic giving — the top one percent give around a third of total charitable donations — elite wealth-making institutions, such as this university, take in far more than they need. Although specific data is difficult to find, the last good estimate suggests only a third of American charity goes to the poor.
In any just human community, charitable giving would correspond with need. And, in our global community, the vast majority of need — whether in Jordanian refugee camps, famished states in Africa or the disaster zone in Dominica — exists beyond our borders. Yet only five percent of donations go abroad.
In sum, Americans fail to meet their obligation to the poor and restrict their generosity to within our borders. In the wealthiest nation in the world, this is a grotesque testament to our moral character.
Philosopher Peter Singer developed an elegant thought experiment, familiar to anyone who's taken an ethics class, to illustrate our philanthropic obligations to the neglected, famished and oppressed.
Say you come across a child drowning in the pool; if you can swim, it is your moral obligation to save the child, even if your clothes might get muddy. Singer posits there's no morally significant difference between a child drowning before you and a child starving across the world. If you have money to donate and someone is dying in a Turkish refugee camp, it's immoral to throw cash at Yale's new performing arts center.
Wealthy individuals and foundations, including the Clark Foundation, deserve public scrutiny of their moral choices. Now, this university isn't the worst possible target of philanthropy — giving to Harvard, for instance, with its $37.1 billion endowment, is barely charity. And the Clark Foundation's investment in need-based aid is certainly admirable. But the list of Clark Foundation beneficiaries worthier than this university's engineering program could fill a book.
The Clark Foundation could have tackled extreme hunger in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, which the U.N. humanitarian coordinator called the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. It could have expanded GiveDirectly's wonderful cash transfer program for poor people in Kenya and Uganda. It could have established a program to send engineers to rebuild infrastructure in small Caribbean countries affected by Hurricane Irma.
I could go on, but my intent isn't to target the Clark Foundation. Its philanthropic failures are mere symptoms of America's philanthropic failures. To truly embody a charitable spirit, Americans must give more to the poor and export philanthropy to areas of humanitarian need around the world. The same is true for university donors. In a better world, the money funding this university's pristine new facilities would instead feed, clothe and comfort the global huddled masses.
Max Foley-Keene, opinion editor, is a sophomore government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.