ASU Lodestar Center


random acts of philanthropy

Random Acts of Philanthropy: The Pros and Cons

August 23, 2023 - The rise of the online influencer has also brought about the rise of a new method of giving: philanthropy as entertainment. 

Millionaires such as Jimmy “Mr. Beast” Donaldson and Bill Pulte (@pulte on Twitter and Instagram) have built an online brand off of their philanthropy with wildly successful and occasionally controversial results. Between a combination of viral YouTube videos, tweets and other forms of social media content, these individuals do their gift giving to the tune of hundreds of thousands of online followers. They have taken to the internet to show off paying for expensive life-altering surgeries, contributing to student loan payments, giving away massive amounts of money following all manner of competitions and much, much more. 

The tangible good of their giving aside, many criticize these philanthropist influencers because of the self-serving benefits that accompany their gifts. Donaldson, for example, openly admits to using the recipients of his giving “for views,” explaining “if I don’t give [the money] to you, I don’t have a viral video.” This begs the question: Is entertainment philanthropy a matter of public good or a matter of serving individual interests? 

Public Good:

Giving to individuals and charities in need is a net positive in the vast majority of contexts. The result of entertainment philanthropy is presumably the same as any other act of giving done in a more private context— money is given to the important causes that need it. While the relatively few influencer philanthropists that exist today are not able to help every cause, the ones that do receive their assistance are most likely better off. 

While influencers do benefit from their random acts of philanthropy, so do non-influencers who also give to important causes. Over the years, a series of tax benefits have been imposed for all those who donate to nonprofits and other charitable organizations. In the U.S., charitable giving can qualify a donor for an up to 60% deduction on their federal income tax, in direct proportion to the amount that they donate. While these benefits are potentially less impactful than seeing an immediate boost in followers after a donation, they do serve to counteract the expectation that giving is only a moral good if done entirely selflessly. 

Self Interest: 

The potential for power imbalance in the format that influencer philanthropists utilize is ripe for abuse. The relationship between influencers and the recipients of their gifts is often more transactional than it is philanthropic due to all recipients needing to be featured online to bolster the influencer’s following. With rising economic inequality in the U.S. leaving 40% of Americans one missed paycheck away from poverty in 2019, recipients may feel the pressure to accept the terms of an influencer’s “generosity,” whether they want to or not. While  the terms are usually as simple as participating in filming a video, consenting to have your name and social media profiles featured publicly, or promoting the influencer’s content yourself, the potential for abuse is still prominent. 

Performing philanthropy in public spaces gives way to “poverty porn,” which often makes a spectacle of the people it seeks to help. While this criticism is not unique to influencers, it is one that is often leveled at influencers who make philanthropy into a major piece of their public persona. The phenomenon of “poverty porn” occurs when the unfortunate circumstances of a person or group, such as poverty, are used as a draw for attracting an audience. Influencer philanthropists are often guilty of this when spotlighting their donation recipients in viral videos for the purpose of elevating the influencer’s public image. No matter how noble the intention, making a spectacle of somebody else’s hardship is exploitative and causes harm to its subjects. 

While influencer philanthropists have doubtlessly done a lot of good for dozens of people, their giving still requires careful and nuanced consideration to avoid the drawbacks inherent to their medium of giving. Perhaps most importantly, those in an influencer’s audience and sphere of influence should look to critically examine the influencer’s behavior to help form a mutually beneficial relationship for all involved— donor, recipient and audience member. 

Story and graphic by Lillian Finley, ASU Lodestar Center.

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