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Elites and Inequality: A Case Study of Plutocratic Philanthropy in the UK


Elites and Inequality: A Case Study of Plutocratic Philanthropy in the UK
This paper investigates the role of elite philanthropy in the context of rising global inequality, asking whether large-scale philanthropic donations by elites are well placed to help tackle structural inequality. The challenges posed by such “plutocratic philanthropy” are explored through analysis of a network of the top 30 philanthropists in the United Kingdom and their connections to businesses and foundations, which shows their financial scale and connectivity. This new data is embedded into a review of the most recent social science literature on elites, which focuses on elite reproduction, how wealthy families perceive inequality, and how and why they engage in philanthropic activities. From this data, the paper develops an analysis of the current landscape of inequality, based on the work of British sociologist Mike Savage (2015), arguing that elite philanthropy as an ecosystem—made up of capital, people and institutions—is not well placed to systemically challenge inequalities, because the financial size of elites’ philanthropy tends to be dwarfed by their business activities, and the social functions of philanthropy help maintain the advantaged positions of elites. The paper concludes with informed policy considerations on the role of elite philanthropy in light of the results of the analysis.

Luna Glucksberg is a Research Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute (III) at the London School of Economics (LSE) where she works on inequality, elite reproduction, family offices and local wealth-building strategies. She is widely published and her recent work focuses on the intersections of gender, kinship and capital in the reproduction of dynastic elite families (Glucksberg 2018).

Louise Russell-Prywata is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social & Economic Equity at the London School of Economics. Her research explores the power and influence of elites, in particular that exerted through corporate and philanthropic networks. She is also Senior Programs and Policy Manager at OpenOwnership, an initiative combining policy and technology to increase transparency over company ownership globally. Prior to this she spent several years fundraising from and working with philanthropists, most recently at Transparency International UK.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 17 Jul 2020
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISBN: 978 92 9085 112 7
    From: UNRISD