Perspective

Marcus Rashford, Dolly Parton and public perceptions of Philanthropy


It was reported this week that a potential Covid-19 vaccine with highly promising initial trial results was part-funded by a $1m donation from legendary country singer Dolly Parton. This news was greeted with delight by internet users, who took the opportunity to spawn a series of Parton-related memes across Twitter and other platforms (“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaa-aacine” to the tune of “Jolene”; “it’s working 9 tee 5 (per cent)” etc).

What may have struck seasoned philanthropy watchers, however, was the lack of vitriol or criticism levelled at Parton. The public response seemed to suggest that her giving is just pretty straightforwardly seen as a good thing; and given that recent years have seen an increasing trend towards criticism of philanthropy (some justified, some not so much), this seems noteworthy.

The Dolly Parton story comes on the heels of another example of celebrity philanthropy that has garnered a largely positive response from the public here in the UK: namely the campaign led by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford to ensure the continuation of free school meals during the school holidays for eligible children.

This raises some interesting questions. What is it about Rashford and Parton’s philanthropy that might help explain this positive reception? If there are particular features that are seen as positive by the public, are they the same in both cases or different? And what can others potentially learn about how to do philanthropy, or how to communicate it better?

Approach to Philanthropy

The first thing to say is that whilst there may be interesting similarities between the two stories, the approach to philanthropy in each case is markedly different. Rashford’s philanthropy (to date, at least) is primarily centred on his direct personal involvement in a (highly effective) single issue campaign; and whilst he may also have made financial contributions this has not been the focus of attention. Parton’s philanthropy, meanwhile, is more widely spread (unsurprisingly, given that she has been at it far longer than Rashford) and has a more traditional financial focus (including a grantmaking foundation, the Dollywood Foundation).

Humility

What the two share, however, is an apparent reluctance to position themselves at the centre of the story, and a desire instead to emphasise the contribution of others. A recent tweet from Rashford, for instance, read “To the campaigners, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, care workers, key workers that have fought for this level of progress for years, thank you. This is YOUR victory. Never underestimate the role you have all played. I’m just honoured to be on this journey with you.”

Parton, meanwhile, in an interview with the BBC’s The One Show said “I'm sure many millions of dollars from many people went into [funding this vaccine]… But I just felt so proud to have been part of that little seed money that will hopefully grow into something great and help to heal this world."

This element of humility – the willingness to acknowledge that they are only a small part of something bigger – is an appealing feature of both Rashford and Parton’s approaches. It sits at odds with the archetype of the “philanthropic lone saviour” that has dominated too much big money giving in the past, whereby donors (usually men, it must be said) have seen their philanthropy largely as another means by which to prove their own brilliance.

This kind of “funder ego” leads to an over-emphasis on being able to attribute success to a single source (or at least to claim such attribution), and presents barriers to collaboration and partnership. Perhaps the most useful positive lesson we can take from both examples is that putting aside ego and doing philanthropy in a more collaborative way is not only good in itself, but also seems to play well with many of those watching.

Building grassroots support

Linked to this is something else that we can take from Marcus Rashford’s recent campaigning efforts: namely that moving beyond collaborations with other philanthropists and civil society orgs and making efforts to develop broad-based, grassroots support is hugely powerful in ensuring philanthropic legitimacy and licence to operate. One of the great strengths of philanthropy throughout history has always been its ability - through advocacy and campaigning efforts – to challenge the status quo and drive change. But this is never achieved in isolation: it is always vital to build public support for a cause, and in so doing bring it from the margins into the mainstream. Not only does this amplify the pressure on those in power (as Rashford has so brilliantly done); it also makes it much harder for them to characterise the campaigning as simply the crusade of only one person, or to level the charge that by challenging policies set by an elected government the philanthropist is acting anti-democratically. That is why, as the historian Hugh Cunningham puts it “reform is often understood as something which is the outcome of public agitation against an at-best-reluctant government”.

Charity or Justice?

Another interesting feature of Marcus Rashford’s philanthropy is the nature of what he is campaigning for. In calling for the government to extend free school meal provision for eligible children, he is not calling for them to be given a gift as an act of charity; rather he is making a claim of justice – that they have a right to expect that support as part of the overall social contract and that the government should recognise this claim and act accordingly.

This goes to the heart of an absolutely fundamental question: how does charity relate to justice? Are the two complementary or do they sit in opposition to one another? This is an issue that many thinkers and practitioners throughout history have tussled with, from pioneering 18th century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft’s rallying cry that “it is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world”, to Martin Luther King’s reminder that “whilst philanthropy may be commendable, it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary”.

This is a question that is once again at the forefront of debate. The recent prominence of social movements like Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion and their calls for racial and environmental justice has led critics to question whether traditional charitable or philanthropic approaches have in some cases become part of the problem by deflecting attention away from claims of justice through promoting narratives of charity. There has been a lot of soul-searching within the world of philanthropy as a result, and calls for change from prominent voices- such as the Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker’s entreaty to shift “from generosity to justice) (which I looked at in a review of Walker’s book for DAFNE last year).

Now, Marcus Rashford is probably not, in all honesty, thinking about how his own campaign over free school meals sits within this wider context; but for anyone interested in the broader trends affecting philanthropy, the fact that it does and that this appears to be viewed positively is worth noting.

Innovation and risk-taking

Dolly Parton’s philanthropy (at least in this instance) says less about justice, but does highlight another important theme within philanthropy. By using her grantmaking to support research and development, which is an inherently risk-laden enterprise, she was demonstrating the value of philanthropy’s ability to take risks and thereby drive innovation. This is something that has long been put forward as a key virtue of philanthropy, and often used to contrast it with the limitations of government. William Beveridge argued in his 1948 book Voluntary Action, for instance, that “The capacity of Voluntary Action inspired by philanthropy to do new things is beyond question. Voluntary Action is needed to do things which the state should not do…. It is needed to do things which the state is most unlikely to do. It is needed to pioneer ahead of the state and make experiments. It is needed to get services rendered which cannot be got by paying for them.”

Parton’s talk of “seed money that will hopefully grow into something great and help to heal this world” clearly fits into this tradition. And perhaps this is part of the explanation for her donation being seen positively: a sense that she is “using her giving appropriately” to support something risky, but with the potential for significant societal benefits if successful. (For more on philanthropy and innovation, see this previous Giving Thought blogpost).

Personal involvement and commitment

The other thing that links Rashford and Parton’s approached to philanthropy is a clear sense of commitment and personal involvement. In Parton’s case, she has a long track record of giving over many years ─ including her “Imagination Library” initiative that has been providing free books to pre-school children since 1995 (at first only in the US but it has subsequently expanded to Canada, the UK, Australia and Ireland) ─ and is obviously very engaged with many of the project she funds. Marcus Rashford has obviously been involved in philanthropy for less time but has already demonstrated the same kind of engagement, and this has almost certainly helped in terms of people taking his efforts seriously and not questioning his motives.

Of course there are always cynics, and Rashford has been accused of “virtue signalling” or engaging in “a PR stunt” by some. But it is hard to see what basis these accusations have, given that Rashford doesn’t seem particularly in need of additional good publicity (indeed I would say as a Liverpool fan that his football career is going upsettingly well, to be honest…) Furthermore, in terms of the political and personal risk he is taking it would seem a lot easier for him NOT to be doing what he is doing.

The impact of being perceived to be authentic and committed as a philanthropist is again something that has historical echoes. Indeed, author Paul Vallely has recently argued in his new book “Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg” that celebrity activists like Marcus Rashford or Bob Geldof are actually following the template set by the first person to be called a “philanthropist” in the modern sense, prison Reformer John Howard (as I discussed with Paul on a recent episode of the Giving Thought podcast). Howard was a curmudgeonly and somewhat difficult man by all accounts, but due to his level of commitment he developed a reputation and standing as a philanthropist that is pretty much unparalleled before or since. So much so, indeed, that even 70 years after his death, The Times newspaper was still using Howard’s example to criticise contemporary philanthropist for their lack of commitment:

“John Howard, like an apostle of old, went to the places and mixed with the people that he wished to reform, and he had his reward in an early grave and the admiration of the world. But modern philanthropy does not run such dangers and will hardly excite such gratitude.”

The lesson, perhaps, for other donors is that the public appreciate authenticity, and this cannot be faked. It is a matter of having convictions and values, and engaging through philanthropy in a way that clearly reflects them.

Personal stories

The perceived authenticity of both Marcus Rashford and Dolly Parton when it comes to their philanthropy may in part come down to who they are as people. Both of them, for instance, have spoken openly about their own experiences of poverty growing up. Rashford grew up in a single-parent household and cites his own experience of “knowing what it is like to be hungry” to explain the drive behind his free school meals campaign. Parton, meanwhile has described her upbringing as one of twelve children as “dirt poor” and has cited the example of her own father, who could not himself read or write but always encouraged her, as the key driver behind her focus on child literacy. Personal connection to a cause is often one of the key drivers of philanthropy, but in these examples the connection is particularly visceral and easy for people to grasp, and this may help to explain why there is less cynicism that we might otherwise see.

Nature of wealth

Marcus Rashford and Dolly Parton have clearly left their poverty-stricken childhoods behind them and both become wealthy (although she almost certainly has the edge in this regard!) However, the nature of their wealth ─ in terms of how much money they have, and how they made it─ may also be relevant. For one thing, whilst both are clearly rich they are perhaps not astronomically wealthy in a way that is difficult for people to grasp. The level of wealth of a Premier League footballer is clearly well above what most of us will ever earn, but maybe it is not so far above that we can’t envision it? (Even if we don’t expect to achieve that through sporting prowess…) This is something that is borne out in research: a Trust for London report on perceptions of wealth in London, for instance found that people made a distinction between “aspirational” and “unobtainable” wealth ─ with one focus group participant reporting that “people talk about ‘I want to be a millionaire’, they don’t talk about wanting to be a billionaire”.

The way in which Rashford and Parton have become wealthy is also worth noting. For one thing, it is understandable: people get what it means to be successful as a singer or a footballer and why that might lead you to be rich, in a way that most people (I would suggest) don’t understand what it means to become a billionaire through a flair for convertible bond arbitrage or even through running a technology company. And perhaps these are also seen as more “legitimate” means of getting rich, which is again important. Research by Tax Justice UK reported that people make a clear distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” rich people (in the same way that there have been similar distinctions historically between the deserving and undeserving poor), and that this has a big bearing on how those rich people are perceived. In studies, people tend to be quite reluctant to criticise wealth in general, but are more than happy to be scathing about those they think have not “earned it” or have behaved irresponsibly after acquiring it (Names like Mike Ashley and Paris Hilton often crop up here).

One complicating factor in this picture is that “footballers” are often cited as a prime example of undeserved wealth, but perhaps this is more a reflection of the track record they have as a group in terms of behaviour rather than it being seen as fundamentally unjustifiable to make money in this way. In any case, when it comes to Marcus Rashford these kinds of perceptions might also be tempered by the fact that he is evidently using his position to help others through his campaigning and by the knowledge of his background of poverty, because people tend to view wealthy people who are considered to be “socially mobile” more positively. (The previously mentioned Trust for London research found that figures like Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling and Alan Sugar were examples of this, as people often had a sense that they were “more deserving because they had worked hard for their money”).

If the knowledge of an individual’s humble roots plays a part in creating a more positive view of their wealth (and philanthropy), then the fact that Marcus Rashford is a sportsman and Dolly Parton a musician (as well as a very good businesswoman) may well be significant. These have historically been two areas in which those from poor or less privileged backgrounds can find success and wealth, so when it comes to philanthropy it may be more likely that donors from sporting or musical backgrounds are viewed positively by the public and also more likely that they have personal experiences of poverty that could shape their giving.

Outsider status?

Another interesting question is whether Dolly Parton and Marcus Rashford are still perceived as outsiders in some sense? Although both of them are prominent and successful in their chosen fields, as a woman and a young black man they have faced – and continue to face – obstacles and challenges that other wealthy people simply don’t have to deal with. This may make them seem less a part of the establishment or the elite, and give them something of an underdog status that endears them more to the public. People may then particularly appreciate it when they are able to use the power they do have through their celebrity and wealth to confound those who are seen as the elite.

In Parton’s case, she has many times spoken of how she deliberately uses her image and persona to make people (primarily men, it must be said) underestimate her ─ usually to their cost. As she says “I look like a woman but I think like a man. I’ve done business with men who think I’m as silly as I look. By the time they realise I’m not, I’ve done got the money and gone.” (Which is sort of empowering, if you put aside quite how depressing the idea that a woman should feel the need to “think like a man” is). Rashford, meanwhile has won many admirers for his polite, articulate victories over a slew of MPs and commentators who have tried to patronise and “correct” him over the issue of child food poverty on social media.

These examples also speak to something else that might help to explain why a particular example of philanthropy has public appeal: namely that it confounds expectations in a way that people enjoy. In Parton’s case, social media users and other clearly delighted in the cognitive dissonance that came from juxtaposing her name appearing on a scientific research paper about vaccines and her deliberately kitsch persona. In Rashford’s case, his humility, commitment and articulacy in his campaigning work contrast starkly with a well-established stereotype of young footballers being materialistic and self-obsessed (which may well be unfair in many other cases too, but is definitely a trope).

Conclusion

It has been interesting, and in many ways heartening in the context of a lot of critique and criticism of philanthropy over the past few years, to see these two positive news stories emerge recently. By looking at the similarities and differences between them, and how they fit into the wider context, we can perhaps glean something about what is likely to bring a higher chance of public support and favourable public opinion for examples of philanthropy in future. Of course, not all the features we have identified here are replicable (and you may feel that some are a bit of a stretch!) but there are definitely lessons we can learn.

This article first appeared on the Charities Aid Foundation website on November 20, 2020, and is republished here with kind permission of Rhodri Davies, Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation

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