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(2019-2020) Corporate Philanthropy and its ulterior motives

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Jade Laverick, Lara Dixon, Emmeline Velecky, Amber Pocock, Shadee Lacey, Christian McKinnon, Cheyane Brown

In recent years, multinational corporations have been in the headlines for their philanthropic endeavours and charitable donations. Whilst on the surface, these large donations might appear as selfless attempts to improve lives around the globe, they are tied up in social relations in such a way that giving away money is never the end of the story. We will explore these issues through the examples of corporate giving by Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The complex consequences of corporations giving charitable donations can be better understood if we consider Mauss’ concept of ‘the gift’. Mauss (1954) argued that the exchange of gifts between different groups inevitably forms social contracts that bond the receiver to the giver with an obligation to reciprocate. Although Mauss mainly focuses on gift exchange within aboriginal societies, the idea of giving, receiving and reciprocation can be drawn upon when  analysing corporate philanthropy from an anthropological perspective. In many examples of corporate philanthropy, ‘the gift’ takes the form of a monetary donation. Although this donation is given in a way that attempts to close the gap between the rich giver and the poor receiver, it actually reinforces their differences because it reasserts the unequal power relations between the rich and poor. As Stirrat and Henkel (1997) state, ‘the act of receiving is hedged with conditionality at best, while at worst the gift may become a form of patronage and a means of control’ (72). The poor recipient will be forever indebted to the giver due to their inability to repay this gift, as ‘what starts out as a seemingly free gift is transformed into a heavily conditional gift when it reaches the ultimate recipient’ (Stirrat and Henkel, 1997: 66).

Through the example of Microsoft, we can see how corporate philanthropic endeavours are not always a selfless act but can be an interested gift. Microsoft views technology as a crucial factor in the improvement of people’s quality of life, and are keen to close the global digital divide. This includes an initiative in Kenya where Microsoft collaborated with Mawingu Networks (Microsoft, 2019). By using low-cost technologies, they have connected people to the internet for as little as one dollar per month. While undoubtedly, there are many benefits to this corporate philanthropic endeavour, there are many unintended consequences to these actions. Corporate funders are becoming more strategic about their giving, looking to use their products and services to do good in the world, while also expanding brand loyalty and creating dependency and greater use of their products worldwide. Whilst this mission can be advertised as philanthropy, it is also in the interests of Microsoft to enter these emerging, profitable markets that are rife with future customers. It links to Mauss’ (1954) theory of the gift, which complicates the narrative of philanthropic endeavours. In practice, the gift can reassert unequal power relations because of the indebtedness and obligation that it creates. In this specific example, the dependency on the technology that is created serves to produce a series of problematic relations, by simply reinventing the differences between rich and poor. By becoming the dominant force in this emerging market, Microsoft can increase its market share and thus control the market forces, inevitably increasing profits.

Corporate philanthropy can help to eradicate corporations’ dirty underside by creating ‘corporate personhood’ (Shever, 2010). Shever developed this idea in the context of Shell’s public relations work to remake ‘the company into a good corporate citizen and caring neighbour with a benevolent public “face”’ (2010: 26). Through philanthropic community projects in Argentina, Shell attempted to ‘generate an intimate personal connection’ with its community partners (Shever, 2010: 26). Similar methods are employed by Microsoft in their philanthropic commitments and as a result, it becomes a good global citizen and creates a benevolent public image instead of just being faceless. One of the ways this is achieved is by ‘creating the corporate soul’ through imagery (Marchand, 1998). Microsoft’s philanthropy website is plastered with images of volunteers, charity workers, and beneficiaries connecting the claims of Microsoft with human faces. Moreover, through product placement in such photographs, the Microsoft brand is combined with the imagery of charity. In this way, philanthropy is used as a form of promoting the company’s image and brand.

Since leaving Microsoft in 2008, Bill Gates’ primary endeavour has been the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which seeks to improve global healthcare and education, and eradicate poverty. Their Foundation supports organisations aiming to do good worldwide, and the Gates themselves have personally donated $45.5 billion through the Foundation (Berger, 2019). Through the Foundation donating huge sums of money to university departments, major international development NGOs, and the World Health Organisation, it gains substantial control over global health policy and intellectual norms surrounding healthcare. Furthermore, this control goes directly to the Gates, as any decisions it makes come from them, and not any public body (Youde, 2013: 154). The Foundation’s work has also been termed ‘philanthrocapitalism’, which describes the conflation of ‘business aims with charitable endeavours’ (McGoey, 2012: 185). For example, its work is data-driven, competitive and revenue-generating (Bowman, 2012). In a 2008 Times article (cited in McGoey, 2012: 191-194), Gates himself comments on the potential profits that can be found in poorer areas, and supports companies earning profits in such areas as long as they also serve the public. Gates’ theory in practice can be evidenced by situations where his Foundation provides large corporations with labour and resources in poorer countries. For example, the Foundation linked up small farmers with Coca-Cola (McGoey, 2015). Consequently, as Mauss’ theory of the gift would suggest, these corporations become obligated to the Gates. Overall, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given away huge sums of money, providing help to people across the world. However, this money is not a free gift: the Gates gain immense international influence within the realms of business and international development, whilst being accountable to practically no-one. Where the intentions of the Gates fall on a scale from benign to sinister it is up to the reader to decide, but the consequences of their philanthropy are nonetheless more extensive than would appear on the surface.

Through these examples and from an anthropological perspective, we hope to highlight that corporate philanthropy is not always as simple as it might first appear. There are a plethora of social relations that are created as a result, often simply reinventing the unequal power relations that were there before, and, more often than not, many economic benefits. The question that we need to ask is whether or not this matters. Even if these corporations do receive higher profits or an increased market share, does it make the work that they are doing, or the donations they are giving unworthy? The aim of this blog is not to answer this but to give you a more nuanced perspective on the topic of philanthropy as a whole.


Berger, S. (2019). Jeff Bezos gave away more money than Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg combined in 2018. [online] CNBC. Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

Bowman, A. (2012). The Flip Side to Bill Gates’ Charity Billions. [online] New Internationalist. Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

Mauss, M. (1954). The gift; the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London, Cohen & West.

Mcgoey, L. (2012). Philanthrocapitalism and Its Critics. Poetics 40: 185–199. 10.1016/j.poetic.2012.02.006.

McGoey, L. (2015). No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. Brooklyn: Verso.

Philanthropy A Gift or Investment | Philanthropy Research from CAF. Available at: [Accessed Nov 2019]

Rural Broadband Access and Connectivity – Microsoft CSR Microsoft. Available at: [Accessed Nov 2019]

Stirrat, R., & Henkel, H. (1997). The Development Gift: The Problem of Reciprocity in the NGO World. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 554: 66-80. Retrieved from

Shever, E. (2010). Engendering the Company:Corporate Personhood and the “Face” of an Oil Company in Metropolitan Buenos Aires. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33: 26-46. doi:10.1111/j.1555-2934.2010.01091.x

Youde, J. (2013). The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in Global Health Governance. Global Society 27(2): 139-158. DOI: 10.1080/13600826.2012.762341.