Elite philanthropy in the United States and United Kingdom in the new age of inequalities

Mairi Maclean, Charles Harvey, Ruomei Yang, Frank Mueller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


Elite philanthropy—voluntary giving at scale by wealthy individuals, couples and families—is intimately bound up with the exercise of power by elites. This theoretically oriented review examines how big philanthropy in the United States and United Kingdom serves to extend elite control from the domain of the economic to the domains of the social and political, and with what results. Elite philanthropy, we argue, is not simply a benign force for good, born of altruism, but is heavily implicated in what we call the new age of inequalities, certainly as consequence and potentially as cause. Philanthropy at scale pays dividends to donors as much as it brings sustenance to beneficiaries. The research contribution we make is fourfold. First, we demonstrate that the true nature and effects of elite philanthropy can only be understood in the context of what Bourdieu calls the field of power, which maintains the economic, social and political hegemony of the super‐rich, nationally and globally. Second, we demonstrate how elite philanthropy systemically concentrates power in the hands of mega foundations and the most prestigious endowed charitable organizations. Third, we explicate the similarities and differences between the four main types of elite philanthropy—institutionally supportive, market‐oriented, developmental and transformational—revealing how and why different sections within the elite express themselves through philanthropy. Fourth, we show how elite philanthropy functions to lock in and perpetuate inequalities rather than remedying them. We conclude by outlining proposals for future research, recognizing that under‐specification of constructs has hitherto limited the integration of philanthropy within the mainstream of management and organizational research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)330-352
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of Management Reviews
Issue number3
Early online date21 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021
Externally publishedYes


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