June 19, 2015

The $400-Million Gift to Harvard: Smart Giving or Misdirected?

Rose Lincoln, Harvard University
John A. Paulson in Massachusetts Hall at Harvard University

The $400 million donation to Harvard University from John Paulson, a hedge-fund manager, is among the high-profile gifts generating discussion about where the wealthy should direct their biggest contributions.

To help sort out the divergent views, Amy Costello, founder and host of Tiny Spark, interviewed people with different perspectives:

  • Jon Behar of the Life You Can Save, a nonprofit that promotes effective altruism, says the money could have achieved more good elsewhere. That’s because of how much Harvard already has and its strong fundraising abilities. He’s also concerned about the other opportunities Mr. Paulson passed up to give to Harvard. Mr. Behar, who used to work in the hedge-fund industry, also says he understands the controversy from the donor’s viewpoint: that donors sometimes feel like they “just can't win” because of the criticism. “If you keep the money, you get blamed. If you give it away, you get blamed.”
  • Caroline Fiennes, director of the nonprofit Giving Evidence, is happy there’s so much debate about the donation. She says that throughout her 15 years in philanthropy, she has rarely seen so many people ask so many questions about the effectiveness of a large gift.
  • Kathy Ku, who received a full scholarship to study engineering at Harvard, believes the money will have widespread impact beyond the Cambridge, Mass., campus. Harvard gave her money to start a clean-water business in Uganda, and she says several classmates have received funding to take similar paths. She hopes the Paulson gift will allow future students to take advantage of their engineering skills to help people in the neediest parts of the world.

Listen to the full discussion and see more articles about the Harvard gift controversy on the Tiny Spark website.