The Robin Hood Foundation is an organization headed up by a group of some of the United States’ wealthiest families and individuals. The Foundation’s mission is to make this world a better place through charitable giving and donations. In many ways, the Robin Hood Foundation represents the best and highest ideals to which a charitable organization can aspire. Among the principles that guide Robin Hood’s Board of Directors:

  • The Board of Directors underwrites all fund-raising and staff expenses so that 100% of all contributions from others go directly to the foundation’s charitable programs.
  • Robin Hood attacks the root causes of poverty by funding programs that fundamentally change the paradigm – education, good nutrition, health services and economic security.
  • The foundation also funds survival programs to help those struggling in poverty right now.
  • The foundation’s programs are supported with professional expertise and pro bono help from those who are best equipped to give it.

$100 Million Challenge Grant

On Tuesday, May 26, 2009, the Robin Hood Foundation’s Annual Dinner raised over $56 million for charity in a single night, and laid the foundation for further donations. George Soros, one of the wealthiest men in the world, laid down a donation challenge: he will match every donation raised by the foundation’s Board of Directors in 2009 and 2010 up to $50 million. The Board of Directors stepped up the challenge further with an additional $50 million in matching grant money to effectively double the first $100 million in donations from givers.

The following Sunday, Verena von Pfetten, a senior editor with Air America Media, mused at the Huffington Post that she had spent part of the evening looking for some sort of smug, self-congratulatory air at the dinner, and found it remarkably absent. It was, she declared, “absolutely, utterly, and undeniably inspiring.”

And she is right. There is no denying that such devoted acts of charity are inspiring. Nor is there any questioning that those who make those gifts – whether for $1 or $100 million – are good people who want to help others rise out of poverty and get their share of the American Dream. At the very least, they are good people who cannot bear the thought of a child going to bed hungry if there is something they can do to help. And yet, hundreds of thousands of people of good conscience – these same people who would give half of their last dollar to another in need – close their minds tightly when they hear the words “economic justice“.

Philanthropy vs. Economic Justice

In the face of such incredible generosity, it may be considered uncharitable to wonder how many of those generous people have made their millions off the backs of working people who did not get a chance to share in the profits of their labor. How many inherited fortunes made by ancestors who exploited workers by underpaying them or exposing them to risks they would never take themselves? Even as society applauds the goodness of those who give charity to others, one has to wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to pursue economic justice in the form of fair wages, universal health care and a guarantee of basic human needs.

One of the basic tenets of economics in the “free market system” is that the responsibility of an organization’s board of directors is to make as much money as possible for the corporation’s shareholders. One might suggest that the major responsibility of the Board of Directors should be to make decisions that are best for all of the corporation’s stake holders, and that those stake holders should include not only the shareholders, but also the employees and the overall community. Profits for shareholders must be balanced by meeting the concerns of employees for a living wage and the community for fair business practices that don’t harm the world.

What happens when corporations ignore the needs of their workers in the interests of making more money for their owners? History offers a few examples:

  • Hundreds of thousands of workers dying of conditions caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and substances like asbestos
  • Buildings and bridges collapsing because of the use of substandarnd (cheaper) materials
  • Widespread outbreaks of salmonella poisoning caused by corner-cutting in the inspection process
  • Lakes and waterways destroyed by the spillage of millions of tons of toxic chemicals

Big business has fought reforms and regulations to ensure safe operations of their facilities for decades. It is and has been common practice to ignore the common good in the interests of making more money. One effect of this in today’s economy is the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, not to countries where the tax burden is lighter, but to those countries that have yet to feel the disasters brought on by devotion to the bottom line.

Those who give generously to charity are to be applauded. Those who, like the Robin Hood Foundation, couple their charity with work that supports economic justice, are to be doubly applauded. Until those who support unregulated free-market capitalism understand, though, that a fair sharing of profits is the only way to a profitable world, philanthropy will never be enough to cure poverty.


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