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Philanthropist dollars often come with strings attached: wealth watcher

By Michael Connor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - No longer content to build hospitals and give art to museums, America's elite philanthropists more and more often write supersized checks in efforts to steer educational, environmental and government policies, according to wealth tracker David Callahan.

Callahan, author of "The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age," told the Reuters Global Markets Forum on Monday that the activism was a sea change coming as a new generation of billionaires rise to prominence and governments scramble for money.

The following are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Question: Is philanthropy a whole new thing from the days of the Rockefellers, Ford and Carnegie, who built institutions such as libraries?

Answer: Today's philanthropy is getting super-sized, as more wealthy people turn to giving. More philanthropists are using their giving to advance policy agendas. Increasingly, philanthropy is one more way the wealthy exercise power in society, in ways both good and bad.

Q: What is driving this?

A: One thing that is changing is that its power relative to government is growing. As the public sector faces more fiscal constraints, philanthropists are stepping forward to provide leadership. ... It can be troubling if it diminishes the voice of ordinary citizens.

Q: Is this changing how Americans look at philanthropists?

A: Philanthropists are still largely viewed in a positive light, because people tend to associate giving with support of museums, hospitals, and anti-poverty measures. I think the public's view may change as they realize how active many donors are in seeking to sway public policy.

Q: How will activist philanthropy shape society over the next decade or two?

A: Philanthropy will play a growing role in U.S. society and the rest of the world. This money will become increasingly important as government resources are constrained. The challenge is ensuring that philanthropy is not just one more way that inequality manifests itself.

This interview was conducted in the Reuters Global Markets Forum, a chat room hosted on the Eikon platform. For details, follow this link:

(Additional reporting By Yumna Mohammed in London; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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