Big philanthropy is having something of a moment. There is the Giving Pledge, the promise made by more than a hundred of the United States’ wealthiest citizens, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, to give the vast majority of their fortunes to charity. Then there is the related “giving while living” movement, whose best known proponent is Charles Feeney, now 86, who has given away almost the entirety of his multi-billion dollar fortune during his lifetime.
Some, though, are cautious about these donations’ ultimate effects. There’s an argument that no matter how well intentioned, the scale of the money being directed toward philanthropic efforts by the wealthiest Americans is further contributing to an unequal balance of power in society, even as the givers claim that’s exactly what they are attempting to address.
Joel Fleishman knows these issues well. The director of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University (and a professor there as well), Fleishman served for more than a decade as an executive at the Atlantic Philanthropies, the charitable foundation set up in 1982 by Feeney to carry out his own giving-while-living pledge.
Fleishman’s new book, Putting Wealth to Work: Philanthropy for Today or Investing for Tomorrow, is a survey of the world of charitable foundations, circa 2017. I recently spoke with him about philanthropic giving, including his surprising (for someone with his background) critique of giving while living, and strong defense of perpetual foundations, meaning foundations set up to continue on after their founders pass away. The conversation that follows is lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.