| Birmingham -- Philanthropy is going through a renaissance that rivals the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller.
Philanthropy is everywhere," says Kay Sprinkal Grace. And she should know. She's the author of the book High Impact Philanthropy.
Philanthropy is on the front page of the NY Times. Its on the cover of Time Magazine. Where did we used to have to look for stories on philanthropy? Society pages, the local community columns. I think that weve come to a real golden moment in philanthropy where the community awareness is very heightened.
Thanks in no small part to headline-making wealthy philanthropists who are giving big sums of money to charities and shaking things up, in the process. These so-called venture philanthropists arent content to just write a check and then out of the way. They want a say in how charities run their operations.
I want to do the best I can to make sure my money is well used.
Peter B. Lewis is chairman of the Progressive Insurance Corporation and a prolific philanthropist.
Each case where I havent been involved it has been and Ive just had more joy from it when I give to something that Im interested in and I can influence it. The reality of philanthropy is that people tell you whatever you want to hear until you write the check and then you generally find out they meant almost none of it.
Again, Kay Sprinkal Grace.
Those who create wealth ideas in companies are looking for opportunities to create, not observe. These are not the people who watch things happen. These are the people who make things happen. Im a 33 year old gazillionaire, wheres your business plan? I want to know what your vision is. I want to know what your goals are. I want to know where youre going and I want to know how youre going to get there.
But this push by donors and board members to take a more active role in how charities operate is sometimes troubling to non-profit managers. Sandy Killion is with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.
They shouldnt be coming in the office every day hanging around doing staff work.
Brooke Taylor, who has run non-profit childrens theater groups, takes it a step further. She worries that more engaged donors might try to push an agenda that could pull a non-profit off mission.
I think a lot of people, with money, you know its kind of something that they can hold over someones head and I want to steer clear of compromising what we stand for. But I mean, the simple fact of the matter is if we dont have those positive fundraising experiences the doors of ACT would have to close which is really sad.
But some non-profit managers, especially those working with meager budgets, say theyd take their chances with pushy donors. Donald Basham used to run the Huntsville Rescue Mission on 58-hundred dollars a month. That covered mortgage on the property, utilities, food for 35 homeless men and Bashams salary when he took one. Fundraising was a constant struggle.
Heres its sort of like the slaves in Egypt when they were building the pyramids. A thousand of them pulling one stone at a time. You basically work every possibly entity you can to find any kind of food or financial help you can from any source, so its constantly word of mouth well, if you cant find help who do you know that might can. And so its 9,000 phone calls to accomplish one thing.
Its these kinds of non-profits those that live hand to mouth that critics say could fall victim to venture philanthropists with hidden agendas. Huge gifts by philanthropists like Bill Gates and Ted Turner are prompting questions about the motivations of donors. Foundations spend big money on public policy research sponsoring news projects. They are a powerful force in setting the social agenda.
One former official with the Philanthropy Roundtable, an association of donors in Washington DC, imagines a fellow named Dr. Evil Donor an extremely wealthy philanthropist who uses his money and clout to impose his ideology on impoverished or developing countries. Subjects like biotech, narcotics legalization and other emerging topics, he says, could lead to the potential serious mischief by rich people who were never elected to anything by anyone. And its not just the 3rd world thats at risk and the risk isnt just hypothetical. Philanthropists are increasingly embracing the ballot box as a means of social change by sponsoring citizens initiatives. In California, a trio of wealthy philanthropists pushed through a initiative that rolls back the drug laws it requires drug treatment instead of jail time for non-violent offenders. Larry Brown was Executive Director of the California District Attorneys Association when the measure took effect in 2001.
The simple fact of the matter is that we were outspent by the proponents of Proposition 36, ten to one. The Yes on 36 campaign was bankrolled almost entirely by three out of state millionaires whose mission is to weaken the drug laws across the country. On one day alone those three contributors each wrote a check for over $380-thousand to bankroll the campaign.
I dont even know what it is. What was it?
Peter Lewis of the Progressive Corporation when asked why he supported the measure.
Im sort of a more strategic financier in that area and I dont pay attention to the details. I know what were trying to do and what were trying to do is foster the passage of initiatives that reduce the penalties for drug use. Alright! Thats what were trying to do. I dont pay attention to the details of which initiative, where.
Not what Larry Brown would want to hear.
It certainly should be disturbing to Californians that their public policy has been influenced so significantly by persons who do not live in our state and these are persons who radically altered our drug laws and now literally do not have to live with the consequences.
University of Florida professor Peg Hall teaches a graduate-level class on fundraising.
I dont like it when people say well its their money they should be able to decide where it goes. Well wait a minute! Its not their money!
Hall argues that if donors couldnt contribute to just any cause that strikes their fancy, theyd end up paying more taxes on their income and then congress and state legislatures would decide what causes need funding.
I understand their position. Its a reasonable thing to say. I couldnt care less!
Philanthropist Peter Lewis.
What were supporting is in my view as good for the country and the populace as anything we could support.
Peg Hall says this kind of attitude just reinforces the image of philanthropists as elitists.
Were going to help the poor people and were going to help them while sit in our multi-million dollar building in Manhattan. And that annoys people and it annoys congressional people and it annoys us as taxpayers.
Congress and the courts have been turning a more critical eye on the role foundations and philanthropists - especially venture philanthropists -- play in shaping public opinion. And theres evidence the general public may be paying attention as well. A new survey from Harris Interactive finds that people trust non-profits, philanthropic and advocacy groups more than for-profit companies -- but not by much. When asked if they believed various groups would give them objective information on the environment, poverty and human rights, 3 percent of respondents said they trust for-profit companies and just 15 percent said they trust non-profit organizations. The remaining 82 percent say their level of confidence depends on the issue and the organization.
~Tanya Ott, February 26, 2004