Very rich people sometimes make very large donations to educational or cultural institutions. In return, they ask for their names to be plastered atop buildings. These donations have no moral worth.
Earlier this year, David Geffen made a $100 million donation to Lincoln Center in exchange for them renaming Avery Fisher Hall for him. More recently, billionaire banker Sandy Weill and his wife Joan withdrew a $20 million donation to Paul Smith’s College after the school was unable to change its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College; and NYU is currently dealing with a backlash from students and alumni of its engineering school for the Tandons, a financier couple offering a $100 million donation.
While the Weill case is the most naked in its money-for-prestige nature, all of these donations have something in common: they are not donations at all. Rather, they are purchases. Just as corporations buy the naming rights of pro sports stadiums, so too do very rich people buy the naming rights of respected cultural and educational institutions. And for the very same reasons: to burnish their brands. This is the sort of purchase available only to the very, very wealthy, who have already bored themselves with the yachts and mansions dreamed of by lesser souls. They are not buying anything so gauche as that. They are buying reputation, and immortality for themselves. Though these purchases masquerade as charitable gifts born of a sense of altruism, they are in fact the opposite. They are acquisitions, motivated by greed and narcissism.
A halo of social respect is one of the most expensive things that the wealthy can buy. They value it highly, for obvious reasons. All of the material possessions in the world can’t win you the respect of your peers. But an eight or nine-figure donation can—topped off with your own name, so that the world will never forget your generosity.
Money is not supposed to be able to buy you respect, or honor, or love. That is supposed to be earned by your actions, whether you are rich or poor. Usually, the very rich can use their money to manipulate the world as they like, and there is little that anyone can do about it. This is not one of those cases. In the case of buying naming rights, the rich are actually trying to buy something that you can control: your approval of them. Your gratitude towards them. Your estimation of them as moral giants. These things, you can control. The act of bestowing them upon the rich is totally within your power. So just don’t do it.
I am proposing something very modest: that we view these actions for what they are. They are, in fact, one of the most disgusting manifestations of greed in all the world. They represent an attempt by the ultra rich to buy for themselves the very things that we all like to think are not for sale.
But they can only succeed if we let them.