Philanthropy, Elites and Inequality. Understanding Connections and Complexities to Generate Policy Insights

November 2018


This paper investigates the role of elite philanthropy in the context of rising global inequality, asking whether philanthropic donations by wealthy individuals and foundations are well placed to help tackle structural inequality. We explore the challenges posed by the concepts of philanthrocapitalism and plutocratic philanthropy by analysing a network comprising the top 30 UK philanthropists and their connections to business and foundation interests, showing their financial scale and connectivity.

We embed this new data into a review of the most recent social science literature of the elites, which focus on elite reproduction, how wealthy families perceive inequality, and how and why they engage in philanthropic activities.

From these data, we develop an analysis of the current landscape of inequality based on that of British sociologist Mike Savage (2015) to argue that elite philanthropy as an ecosystem – made up of capital, people and institutions – is not well placed to systemically challenge inequalities, due to its financial size tending to be dwarfed by business activities, and social functions of philanthropy that help maintain the advantaged positions of elites. We conclude by outlining some policy implications of these findings with regard the Sustainable Development Goals pledge that ‘no one will be left behind’.


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