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Is Philanthropy Christian?

I have been thinking recently about what Christian lending and borrowing would look like if we tried to incorporate Biblical principles, and didn’t shy away from them, thinking that they are too strong to be true. It’s an issue I’ve dwelt on on and off for years, but is particularly pertinent at the moment because a CIC[1] I’m involved with is looking to purchase a smallholding. We have some cash and we have a business plan that would allow us to afford a mortgage, but there is still a gap to fill, so we are currently looking into funding bodies, angel investors, patient capital and Christian banks.

As Christians we don’t apply to the National Lottery or its subsidiaries, on the grounds that the encouragement of gambling is not a moral good. But is that the only ethical principle we should bear in mind?

Many funding bodies were started with wealth accrued by individuals. That raises an immediate question: how did those people get that wealth? Was it accrued in a moral manner? Did they genuinely earn it through their own labour, or did they profit off the efforts of others? Did they fully remedy any environmental harm caused by their work? Did they pay their labourers a living wage and guarantee good working conditions that don’t make people sick? Did they charge consumers a fair price? Did any of their money come merely from possessing money or assets: investments they made which required from them only their money, not their effort or time or expertise; assets they rented out at a price where the rent helps to buy the asset for the landlord, meaning that the renter is buying part of the landlord’s property for him?

If the individual who accrued that wealth is deceased, then it is too late to ask him to remedy his behaviour so that he truly only receives in income what he has personally earned. In such a case, the best thing left to do is either to turn all the money over to government, trusting the government to disburse it on the public’s behalf (perhaps a grant-making government body could be set up for this purpose), or to set up a trust that donates the money to community-purpose organisations like charities and CICs.

It seems acceptable, then, to apply for and receive grants from bodies whose funds come from a deceased person. However that person accrued their money, it is too late to do anything about it other than to use that money to counter-act any harm caused by that person.

But what about funds that are still being paid into by high-earning people? If a Christian has any reason to believe that that person has acquired their money through unethical practices, should they refuse that person’s money unless and until they stop their unethical behaviour? A classic example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates spend an awful lot of money; almost incomprehensibly huge. But how did they get that money? Should it have ever been theirs to donate in the first place? Can anyone ever possibly be truly said to have earned those sorts of sums?

“Microsoft”, says Joseph Stiglitz, is the “example par excellence” of using monopoly power to drive out, or prevent the entry of, competition.[2] But “monopolists are not good innovators”, as both history and theory shows. Microsoft “did not develop the first widely used word processor, the first spreadsheet, the first browser, the first media player or the first dominant search engine”. Is it ethical to accept money from the Gates Foundation if Microsoft has not yet ceased its anti-competitive behaviour?

I'm undecided on the ethics of accepting grant money from so-called philanthropists who continue to accrue money by methods other than their own personal effort. But the modern economy is complex, so perhaps there are inefficiencies or necessities that make it at least not unethical for some people to 'earn' large sums. I'm open to debate on this one.

[1] Community Interest Company; a company whose purpose is to serve the good of the community [2] Joseph Stiglitz (2012) The Price of Inequality, Allen Lane

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