This month, I can’t seem to herd my thoughts into order, so I am just going to shake my brain free of random thoughts I’ve been having about philanthropy—a field I’ve worked in and around for most of my professional career. Funny memory: sometime during my years of working at foundations, I remember seeing a video in which someone went around to random people, à la Billy Eichner, and asked them what they thought the word “philanthropy” meant. And I remember that more than one person thought that philanthropy had something to do with collecting stamps.
Philanthropy is, according to the Oxford dictionary, “the desire to support the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.” Philanthropy also refers to an organization that’s been specifically set up to donate money to certain causes. Charitable giving is a substantial chunk of the American financial sector—a combination of tax laws, financial policies and practices, and perhaps a desire to appear more large-hearted than one actually is results in literally billions of dollars being given away each year by corporations, charitable institutions, and individuals.
Entire books have been written about philanthropy, so I won’t try to be exhaustive in this piece—I just wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been carrying around about philanthropy, and I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this topic, too. Here they are, in no particular order:
PHILANTHROPY IS PERSONAL
Probably about a decade or so ago is when I started to give money to causes I cared about—and I’ve never been able to decide if I was shamefully late to the practice, or if I had made a reasonable decision to start giving based on income level and personal conviction.
I can’t imagine how I would have stepped up my giving in my twenties and thirties, to be honest. During those years, I worried about mortgages, having a job with health insurance, having kids, and saving for their college educations. I worked for philanthropies that gave away millions and millions of dollars but on an individual level, my main concern was about securing a future for myself and my family. When I finally started, as my kids say, “making bank’ in higher-paid leadership positions, that’s when I started thinking: What causes do I care about, what organizations are working on those causes, and how can I support them?
Those questions, by the way, are not easy to answer. I am one of the most decisive people I know, but I also care about a LOT of things—climate change, reproductive health and rights, animal welfare, and lately, racial and social justice. If you’re like me, there’s some internal soul-searching involved before you can figure out how to prioritize your giving. And you have to do some research to get a sense of the reputation and integrity of the org you want to help. One of the things I came to understand, after working at and knowing of nonprofits, is how easy it is for some orgs get overwhelmed with donations because of major events and disasters and crises that happen. It’s like having all of those people donating blood to the American Red Cross after 9/11: there was a huge outpouring of concern and a desire to help, with limited outlet for these feelings.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t give to the most popular and well-known orgs, but it would help tremendously if more people gave to worthwhile orgs in non-crisis moments. One of the ways people can do this is to sign up for monthly donations, which operate just like your monthly subscription fees. This helps an organization both continue what they’re doing and plan for future growth and expansion in more realistic ways.
–I will often give to friends’ individual fundraising efforts, but I will do so mostly out of friendship and respect for the person, and not because of the cause itself, which is generally something I support in principle, but hasn’t made it to my priority list for my own giving.
–A badly-written fundraising email is enough to deter me from giving or getting involved in some other way. I truly believe that communications and messaging matter, and if you’re not executing on that front, then I doubt how well you’re executing on other fronts, too.
DISLIKE: EGO AND PHILANTHROPY
Many people have written books and think-pieces about what needs to be fixed about the professional philanthropy sector is—and if you want to learn more about the good and the bad from an always thoughtful, occasionally snarky, very entertaining writer, I highly recommend Nonprofit AF. My general feeling is, I’ve seen a lot of the good philanthropy can do and I’ve seen a lot of the bad. But if I were to name one of the things that bugs me the most about bad philanthropy, it’s what I call “giving with ego”—the individual philanthropists who give, but with, like, umpteen million strings attached and a whole, “look at me” vibe that I find, well, kind of gross.
One of the more famous examples of ego-giving was the billionaire who funded a huge new dormitory residence for students at the University of Southern California (USC) that caused one of the architects to quit in protest, because the design of the building included hardly any windows. This donor dude fancies himself an architecture expert—despite never having worked a day in his life as a licensed architect—and could not be budged on his opinion that the design of the building was “stunning.” He is, in other words, convinced he knows best, despite having no objective reason for doing so. Yes, he amassed a mega-fortune—through Warren Buffett’s investment company, Berkshire Hathaway—but can someone explain to me how making money translates into architectural expertise? What in the world makes him think that he can design a humane living experience? The only thing I can think of: his massive damn ego.
The best example of giving without ego is undoubtedly Mackenzie Scott, who is more famous for being the former wife of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, but who more recently has been lauded for giving away billions of dollars in the past few years while strenuously avoiding the spotlight. Her giving record is remarkable: millions of dollars given to organizations dedicated to equity, social justice, and LGBTQ rights, as well as to longstanding established nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. She will occasionally low-key write about how and why she has engaged in philanthropy on Medium, but really, it’s how she gives that’s been so striking—the volume, the speed, the decisiveness, and most of all, her giving with a refreshing absence of ego. As far as I can tell, she hasn’t demanded to have her name be promoted as part of her philanthropy (looking at you, Bezos Earth Fund) and she also doesn’t seem fixated on telling the organizations she’s donating to that she knows best. Instead, she’s funding them to continue the good work they’re doing. (What I would give to see the joy and surprise of people at those organizations when they found out they were getting donations from her!)
Ego is a harder thing to sniff out when it comes to foundations, which usually aren’t driven by just one person’s ego, although there are sometimes families and founders who stay closely associated with the professional enterprise of giving away their personal fortunes. But ego manifests in how many foundations struggle with how “out in front” or “directive” they want to be on any particular issue area.
In general, I think that foundations can do a lot of good with their voice and reputation by drawing attention to an overlooked or obscure social problem and using their leadership capital to convene disparate stakeholders around shared solutions. But I get impatient when foundation staff sit around and worry obsessively about their risk profile and whether or not they will get credit and attention for the work they fund. I think that foundation leadership, in alignment with their boards and staff, should decide how they want to do their business and then communicate that clearly and crisply to their prospective funding partners and grantees. If a foundation wants to be a check-writing organization with some due diligence up front, be clear about that. If a foundation wants to build a field and forge active partnerships with grantees and others to do that (while being mindful of unequal power dynamics and historical and structural inequity), be clear about that. If a foundation wants to give mingy amounts of money with lots and lots of process and strings attached and constantly change their strategic focus or outright refuse to fund overhead and capacity costs, be VERY clear about that, so prospective grantees can stay the hell away from that foundation!
FINALLY: A PHILANTHROPY WISH
The older I get, and the more I learn about other countries that substantially invest in their people’s well-being and security and stability, the more I wonder about whether philanthropy in America is occupying the right seat at the table. It feels—off, somehow, to have individual and professional philanthropy try to tackle gigantic problems like education reform, healthcare reform, job creation, etc. when in other countries, those services are subsidized by the government and people there understand and accept a way of life where less fortunate people are not abandoned or demonized, but supported. I wonder, in the unlikely event that our country could get their heads out of their, er, lower anatomies, whether philanthropy will ever get to the point where it could stop funding the essentials of living and instead fund other things, like rainy-day funds (in the event of crises and natural disasters), or systems-level change over time, or more forward-looking stuff, like innovative new concepts and scientific or technology break-throughs.
I will tell you what’s not on my wish list, though. There are mega-billionaires who seem far more interested in building space rockets and buying Twitter than they are in actually doing good and I don’t waste any time wishing they would give away more of their wealth to good causes. I think it is clear that these mega-billionaires are beyond shaming; yes, $44 billion could lift every single American out of poverty, but would it be possible to get these men to actually feel “a desire to support the welfare of others,” expressed through generous donations? (See: Oxford definition of philanthropy, above.) I don’t believe that for a minute. The chain of policies, practices, and habits that have led to their wealth-hoarding for personal ego-stroking has got to be broken in some other fashion.