A Conversation with Philanthropy Journalist Marc Gunther (Part 1 of 2)

The veteran reporter and commentator talks about his in-depth examination of Michael Bloomberg’s grantmaking against flavored e-cigarettes, and what it says about the nature and effects of much of progressive philanthropy.

A Conversation with Philanthropy Journalist Marc Gunther
Part 1 | Part 2

Marc Gunther does the hard work of both understanding that on which he reports and, when offering commentary, of thinking through the deeper and wider implications of various positions on issues.

Gunther’s incisive work has long included coverage of philanthropy and the nonprofit sectors. It is now featured at his Nonprofit Chronicles and Medium, and he is a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

He is a former senior writer at Fortune and was editor-at-large of The Guardian’s section on sustainable business. He has researched and written four books, including Faith and Fortune: How Compassionate Capitalism Is Transforming American Business and Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon from the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis.

Last week, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published an in-depth examination by Gunther about the massive grantmaking support of Michael Bloomberg and his foundation for efforts to reduce the use of flavored e-cigarettes, “Bloomberg’s Millions Funded an Effective Campaign Against Vaping. Could It Do More Harm Than Good?”

Gunther was kind enough to speak with me last week. The just less than 13-minute video below is the first of two parts of our discussion; the second is here. In the first part, we talk about the Bloomberg anti-vaping effort and what it may tell us about the nature and effects of much of progressive philanthropy.

Citing Stanford political scientist and Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better author Rob Reich, Gunther says “billionaire philanthropy does not deserve our automatic gratitude. It’s an expression of power. And therefore, it really should be looked at in terms of what its impact is. How is that power being thrown around?”

In this case, “when applied to Bloomberg and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which is its biggest grantee and by far the dominant organization in the anti-tobacco movement,” he continues, “I think there’s a significant risk that this campaign will do more harm than good. It’s quite misguided. It’s not based on science. . . .

“I think the evidence, when you look at it dispassionately,” Gunther tells me, “shows that in their efforts to prevent teenagers from using e-cigarettes, which is a laudable goal that everyone I know of agrees with, the unintended consequence is to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of current smokers, who can use them to quit smoking.”

Giving Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer credit for publishing the article, he says, “It’s not easy to run a story that’s critical of Bloomberg and those charities that have very good reputations, probably deservedly so . . . But the story certainly suggests that Bloomberg and its grantees are headed down a risky path.”

More largely, in this and other contexts, Gunther thinks

the whole role of personal responsibility, the whole question of what people are responsible for doing for themselves, is rarely something that is considered or debated in philanthropy when we talk about structural and systemic forces. We often forget that we are all individuals. This may be a very backward or white-privilege point of view, but I do believe we are individuals who have choices and can make choices . . .

In the conversation’s second part, Gunther addresses grantmaking and respect for individual agency, along with the state of reporting and commentary on funders.


This article was originally published in The Giving Review on March 30, 2021.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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