Book review: Why Philanthropy Matters, by Zoltan J. Acs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 4:33pm

Why Philanthropy Matters

by Zoltan J. Acs

Princeton University Press

This book is a good exposition of the history and development of philanthropy in the United States and its positive effect on education, science, medicine and other fields.

Author Zoltan J. Acs is a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, and so Why Philanthropy Matters: How the Wealthy Give, and What It Means for Our Economic Well-Being is well researched and well argued.

But its weakness is that it speaks only about philanthropy in the US and not in the rest of the world. It discusses the work and motivation of donors ranging from Andrew Carnegie to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the two largest philanthropists of our time.

But this is ground that has been well covered by other writers and the media. Buffett and Gates speak often and at length about their philanthropy and what motivates them to give.

"The philanthropic sector in East Asia is very small or non-existent," Acs declares blandly in the chapter on "The Global Perspective". This is completely inaccurate.

Following the earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan on March 11, 2011, Taiwan donated US$260.64 million to the quake victims, of which 90 per cent came from private donors. Taiwan contributed more than South Korea and the US combined.

These donations are part of a vibrant philanthropic sector. The island's largest NGO, the Tzu Chi Foundation, receives annual donations of US$300 million, which it uses in more than 60 countries around the world.

In South Korea, according to government figures, donations to charity amount to about 10 trillion won (HK$69 billion) a year, equivalent to 0.9 per cent of the country's GDP.

In 2012, according to the iDonate website, Hong Kong people gave HK$8.77 billion to charity, more than three times the HK$2.55 billion in 2000.

Acs' book is good for those who want to understand philanthropy in the US. It outlines the unique historical and political factors which determined the form it took in that country. It looks at its influence on the free-market system and examines the question of what to do with wealth - keep it, tax it or give it away.

He examines philanthropists from Benjamin Franklin and Carnegie to Gates and Oprah Winfrey, and how they have used their wealth to set up foundations and promote knowledge.

This philanthropy has benefitted many parts of American society - university research, education, medicine and science - and helped promote economic growth.