Inspired Giving: Bitter/Sweet Legacies

THE OBSERVER REPORTS THAT Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates’ charitable agencies account for half the assets of the top 10 foundations in America. Unlike traditional philanthropists, they are highly public about their donations to the common good and both their digital and altruistic influence is fully transnational.

Is such generosity inspiring to faithful Calvinists, even if it deserves scrutiny?

We stopped in on Hershey, Pennsylvania on a March break family road tour. It’s an enchanting town, built on the philanthropy of its wealthy founder, the chocolate magnate Milton Hershey. A fascinating character, he inherited his penchant for invention from his failed-entrepreneur father and his dreams of idyllic human community from his strict Mennonite mother. When his caramel business took off he stunned the world by selling it all off. He kept his small chocolate line and entered semi-retirement at the age of 43. 

Soon, however, confectionaries beckoned him back, but with an additional dream. “I’m not out to make money,” he said. “I have all that I need.” Joel Glenn Brenner, in his book The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars (1999) says that Milton “wanted nothing less than to build an industrial utopia, a real-life Chocolate Town, where anyone who wanted a job could have one, where children would grow up in celery-crisp air, where mortgages would dwindle in perpetual prosperity.” 

He bought 1,200 acres in dairy-rich Dutch Pennsylvania as demand for his chocolate exploded. Like his Mennonite forbears, he wanted to build a city on a hill, where everyone enjoyed well-being and peace. He not only built bigger, better factories, but new homes, sewage and clean water systems, parks, gardens, theatres, libraries, pools, a zoo and medical services for his employees. At the centre of his benevolent chocolate empire was an orphanage. He and his wife Kitty never had children, and this was the venture that stayed closest to his heart. In fact, when he was just 61 he silently bequeathed the whole business and its fortunes to the orphanage.

Salt culture
Gillian Tett of The Financial Times is skeptical of these philanthropic tycoons – Gates, Zuckerberg and Hershey. She, too, visited Hershey, Pennsylvania, but notes that the Hershey empire has been fraught with trustee fights, lawsuits and resignations. She is also wary of corporate funding for public institutions – especially the paternalism that it assumes. The new digital moguls’ charities are big enough to run entire countries. This March 2018 she wrote about Hershey, Gates and Zuckerberg:

“Yes, their intentions may be utterly benign. But how will these foundations look in 100 years’ time? Will they merely seem like sops for the conscience of modern tycoons, who have grown so rich in a second ‘gilded age’? Or will they present a different vision of modern capitalism? Does it matter that no one elects those vast foundations? Or might Americans actually prefer these trusts to government?” 

For Tett, the Hershey legacy – and similar current philanthropy – “leaves a sour aftertaste.”

Empires are sprawling and complex, and it’s true that they can squeeze out smaller businesses. But cynicism is too easy. My family’s experience at Hershey provoked curiosity and some hope. Not a Calvinist triumphalism, but a sense that Christian endeavours to salt the culture can transform lives and communities worldwide.

Brenner’s book tells the story of Kelly Corvese, a 1983 graduate of the Milton Hershey School (now not an orphanage but “for those from lower income families”). Corvese’s mother committed suicide when he was eight months old and his father was a gambler. He is now an editor for Marvel Comics, and testifies: “If it wasn’t for Milton Hershey, I’m sure I’d be on the streets, in jail or dead.”

In fact, Brenner reports that “nearly all [graduates] wind up law-abiding, successful American citizens.” In other words, people seem to flourish in these benevolent semi-private institutions. Would a higher taxing government spread such wealth around to a wider public? Maybe. In a more impersonal and less efficient way. We know not all corporate emperors are voluntarily this generous. “Freely you have received. Freely give,” said the Master.

Milton was always excited about what was new and big; in 1912 he bought a ticket for the maiden voyage of a spectacular ship christened The Titanic. But business matters kept him from the trip, and he was spared for 33 more years, dying in 1945. His later enterprises included opening sugar factories in Cuba and replicating there what he did in the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. A statue of Hershey adorns the American school, with Hershey’s arm resting on a boy. The inscription reads: “His deeds are his monument. His life is our inspiration.”

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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