Julius Caesar masterfully deployed his public and personal giving to build his reputation as an exceptionally generous nobleman. His deft giving at levels large and small, to friends, rivals, and the masses helped him build a base he used to transform the temporary role of dictator into a lifetime role, thus creating the eponymous title.
The Roman poet Catullus condemned Caesar’s “wicked generosity” because it ultimately led to the downfall of the Roman Republic. Caesar’s generosity corrupted public institutions as he took from the public purse to purchase favors and status. But many of his contemporaries did not question the authenticity of his giving.
He was perceived to be heroically magnanimous. And it is in the perception of generosity where the dark side of giving manifests itself. We can argue which actions are truly generous, whether they meet our standard based on their intent or their impact, but if the actions in question elicit the perception that they are generous, they have shown their power.
That giving can have a negative impact is a prominent topic not only in our school’s seminars but also among our leading foundations. Edgar Villanueva, a long-time foundation professional, seeks to help us overcome what he sees as the oppressive structures shared by finance and philanthropy in his fast-selling book titled Decolonizing Wealth.
Generosity has the potential to be “wicked” at the kind of grand scale we see with Julius Caesar and in sustaining large unjust structures of privilege. There is also the ever-present temptation to use publicly subsidized charitable dollars for private gain as has again become evident in recent foundation cases discussed by our Suzanne Garment and Les Lenkowsky.
But there is plenty of room for manipulative giving in small scale, everyday interactions. Professors Fisman and Luca argue in The Atlantic that even very small gifts create very real obligations of reciprocity that affect the decisions of highly sophisticated recipients. They examine how small tokens influence the prescription writing behavior of physicians, which is why they wonder if free pens distributed by drug salespersons caused the opioid crisis.
Reciprocity elicited by gifts is so strong and dependable that strategies for using them are part of business school curricula. In sales and in fundraising, nominal gifts like labels and postcards are used in direct marketing campaigns because they work—they boost financial returns.
The “nudge” of a gift in the form of a sticker certainly does not rise to the wickedness of Caesar’s depletion of public institutions for his own aggrandizement. But such gifts are also not offered in the true spirit of selfless giving. They are made in the anticipation that some thing or some desired behavior will follow and that a benefit will flow to the “giver.”
In the normal course of our social interactions, we do not make much of such mixed motives, knowing that a business gift or a token of appreciation for our charitable gift constitutes part of a more or less established set of norms.
In a business context, we know that a gift serves to advance a commercial relationship. And in a fundraising context, gestures that recognize donors with benefits ranging from mugs to names on buildings are well established practices.
We know that thanking donors is the right thing to do and that it increases the chances that they will give again. How we express appreciation for our donors or customers may become problematic and in need of reform, but in the normal course of such activities, we would rarely consider them wicked.
We do create rules that restrict gifts to public officials to guard against corruption. We have developed layers of protections to prevent abuse. These days we rightly worry about our public institutions’ capacities to withstand the lure of our contemporary Caesars, but the potential for manipulation through smaller, distributed giving should also cause worry. Many decisions about our public life take place under the radar we use to detect public manipulations of Caesarian wickedness.
We are increasingly learning that social media and digital devices are designed to generate stimuli that keep us feverishly engaged with a product or service, often in order to generate profits for the provider. In part, it is the lure of the free or seemingly free convenience that entices us.
The potential to scale connections, friends, and transactions of all kinds makes it seem as if we are receiving so much value and ease through the digital extensions of ourselves. But this gifted ease and convenience also makes us vulnerable to manipulation, frequently triggering our impulse to reciprocate.
This kind of intimate manipulation at scale used to be more difficult to pull off. Before mass media, dictators had limited reach, and even when they dramatically expanded their audiences through radio and television, they were still apart from our communal cultures where intimate contact had a way of unmasking inauthentic gestures of generosity.
Social media seems entirely more intrusive. It connects, embellishes, and intertwines with our closest relationships. We do not enter these intimate spaces ready to defend ourselves against manipulation. But as social media accompanies us into these places, we’ll need to adapt.
It is, of course, not all bad news. The power of social media to do good should not be overlooked. We have seen great potential for generosity to thrive on top of digital platforms, most prominently perhaps with the #GivingTuesday movement that is largely driven by social media.
And as we look to the future of engagement with philanthropy and causes and the transactions that will support them, we see a lot of innovation and energy migrating online. But as we tap into the power of generosity online to connect across spheres of intimacy, we should also beware how ill-prepared we are to guard against wicked generosity.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean