January 2nd, 2019
This post is not a typical one. Instead of offering thoughts on the philanthropy to our field, this is a request for feedback from funders, philanthropists, and foundations, and colleagues. It is inspired by the many self-congratulatory posts and emails disseminated widely at this time of year, and a professional question they raise for me.
I certainly have only admiration for those in our field who have been recognized and successful. After all, the philanthropy world desperately needs informed, experienced, ethical, and independent professionals who can make sure that our collective billions are wisely spent. While success does not automatically mean that those advisors are all of those things, I would like to think that many are, and are deserving of their success. [Some, I know, are less so, and are simply great salespeople, but for the purpose of this piece, we will set that issue aside.]
The reason for this public inquiry is a detail about if and when it is appropriate to publicize the names of clients.
Over the years, my own practice has been quite consistent. I never publicly share the name of a client. There are two exceptions: when potential clients want references, of course, I provide a limited number of names, but that is always a private, non-public, matter. The other exception is in teaching – and then only when I have the explicit permission of the client or the clients themselves have chosen to publicly acknowledge my role. In neither situation, though, would I put those names in published articles, on our website, or on social media.
The reasoning for this practice is very straightforward: I don’t want potential clients to be concerned that I might reveal their names when they expect confidentiality. I don’t want to rely on disclaimers to assure them of discretion.[I should add here that I do not seek or accept retainer contracts; I only work on a project basis on matters of funder strategy, succession, and the like. Therefore, I am never in the role of being, functionally, a part time foundation officer. It is not a typical business model in our world and may help explain my thinking.]
If many of the end of year “reviews” we have all seen this past couple of weeks are indications, my very conservative practice is not the norm. Clearly many very respected colleagues are quite comfortable being very public with their client listings. Indeed, it may even enhance their marketability.
Thus, my questions – and I really hope to hear from funders as well as advisor colleagues:
• Is my long-time practice impractical and unnecessary, or conversely, does it inspire confidence?
• To funders: are you more or less inclined to invite a proposal from an advisor who has a publicly-posted list of clients? How do you learn about experienced professionals in the field?
• To advisors: what is your thinking regarding the question of publicizing clients? Have you ever experienced push back or do you find that publicizing client names enhances your appeal? If you have chosen to publicize, when do you raise that question with clients? If you have chosen not to do so, what alternative marketing approaches do you find most helpful?
It may seem strange to many of you that, this late in my career, I am raising this question. As some of you may know, I had largely suspended my advisory practice to concentrate on being a trustee, an educator, a private funder and a speaker. During this past year, though, in response to a number of direct requests, I have re-opened my philanthropy advisory practice. These questions, then, are quite relevant.
In advance, thanks. Best wishes for a successful 2019 to all.
December 28th, 2018
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This quote by Maya Angelou has become a mantra in the professional public speaking world of which I am a part. Far be it from me to disagree with such a distinguished personage, but I do. This article is about “what you said.”
In the last few weeks, I have had surprising and moving experiences of people actually remembering what I said or wrote – in one case all the way back to 1968, in another all the way back to 1980. And the week before then, 3 articles I had written for 3 different journals in three unrelated contexts were, coincidentally republished. This is not the first time these kinds of gratifying experiences have happened, but I daresay never in such close proximity to each other. Never let it be said that words don’t matter. Words did and do matter.
Such self-congratulatory comments would have been tempting to write about, but I would have resisted had events of the last few days not happened. For the last 3 years, 2 of which under the constancy of a president for whom veracity is elusive, his words of divisiveness and contributing to overt hatred have characterized his influence on the public square. This week we saw more manifestations that words indeed do matter as one fanatic booster sent bombs to those whose political views that president has demonized. Rarely has there been such a straight-line connection between speech and action. And no sooner was that person arrested, we find ourselves agonizing through a mass murder with explicit anti-Semitic motivations, also influenced by distortions of fact by the sitting president. I am working hard to make sure that my own rage is directed toward the profound changes we must make and not just verbally wringing my hands.
The current occupant of the seat of the US Presidency may be an outlier in his extreme use of derisive speech and abusive rhetoric. I can add my abhorrence of such words and affect, but I am not sure that I have any insights that will soothe the pain in the hearts of so many around the USA, nor suggest a way to change that behavior that have not already been proposed. History will surely judge him, and history will also judge whether our national ethos proves better than that.
This post, though, is not about him but about us. Since there is so little “hearing” across the current political divide, I realize that I am not exempt from doing my share to bring about change.
As long-time readers may recall, I have learned that a lifetime of professionally interesting positions have enabled the kinds of anecdotes with which I began this piece Many others have accomplished at least as much and are well-deserving recipients of public plaudits. But long-time readers should also recall that one should proceed with humility before taking too many bows. Yes, my words have been recalled with fondness and affirmation by some, but I have also learned that some recall my words and affect less positively. Some with hurt.
Typically, one doesn’t hear those negatives – or we deftly block them out. In fact, it takes courage to tell someone that they screwed up and even more that one’s words were hurtful or had a negative impact.. And it takes courage to even allow oneself to hear that kind of feedback when offered.
It doesn’t matter if our words were intended – I doubt that most of us are willful or malicious very often. Sometimes our words are simply imprecise or imperfect. Sometimes our own context isn’t fully perceptible to others. Sometimes we are simply misunderstood.
Sometimes, though, we make mistakes. We say the wrong things at the wrong time. We indulge our own needs without appropriate empathy for others. We say words without any sensitivity to how they will be heard.
The more visible or influential our position, the more this can happen. There are many more who hear or read our words whom we hardly know, or know only in passing, or whom we will never meet. This is true for all of us but the more public, the more responsibility we have.
My own pride in the affirming stories of recent weeks is tempered by knowing that some others surely have different recollections. It is humbling.
I only wish that certain political leaders would learn this lesson. Soon.
In the USA, 6 November 2018 would be a good time for that to happen!
PS: 28 December As the shutdown continues, it is still a lesson worth remembering.
December 21st, 2018
I write this in the hours after our heartless government passed an 11th hour farming bill . Not so hidden was a coal-in-the-stocking gift to almost 1 million of the USA’s most at risk citizens. That gift, a reduction in SNAP [nee “food stamps”] eligibility.
The “justification” [and I use the quotation marks to show how cynical that argument] is that it would make it easier to return this population to the work force.
Let us be clear: only a mean spirited, and morally blind administration can make such a double-speak case. After all, the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients already work as much as they can or have legitimate disabilities that drastically limit their ability to do so. Yes, these already hard-working poor do rely on society’s moral compass to assist them. SNAP doesn’t guarantee that a school child goes to school well-fed, but the absence guarantees that they won’t. It doesn’t guarantee that summers keep people from falling deeper into learning and employment deficits from which they might never recover.
This is not a case without evidence. Government sponsored, academic, and independent studies have all consistently shown that SNAP funding is the single most efficient way to reduce food insecurity. Because food is purchased at regular markets, it solves the distribution problem faced by soup kitchens and pantries [as necessary as they still are.] Once approved, it is user friendly because of the use of debit cards. And it is built on the true underlying motivation that providing dignity to recipients is more likely to encourage and abet upward mobility than more punitive approaches.
Yes, there are those whose view of government’s role means that this evidence means nothing. They, and I cannot write this without disdain, believe that government should have as little responsibility to the health and welfare of its citizens as possible. Let voluntarism take care of them. And if they fall between the cracks, it must be because of character flaws. Given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there can be no other argument.
But if they truly believed that productive work would save people from dependence on SNAP funding, why do those same politicians resist raising the minimum wage so workers might actually be able to live on their meager earnings? Why don’t they provide preventive health care so that workers know that they and their children can work as productively as possible without fear of incurring insurmountable debt just to care for their families? And more.
The real answer, and it is bitter and sad to say, is what I suggested above: we have policy motivated by meanness and bullying. If you haven’t made it so far, it must be your fault. Piling on is just fair retribution for your failings.
Before concluding, I want to respond to an oft heard criticism of those requiring our assistance. They charge that welfare cheats run rampant, that people on SNAP funding buy indulgent soft drinks and sweets. Why should we subsidize them?
Yes, I am sure that if one looks hard enough, one can find some who are cheating, some trying to scam the system, some who, by some standards don’t really deserve our support. But, I daresay that the percentage of those who try to get SNAP funding illegitimately pales in comparison to those middle- and upper-class citizens who try to scam the IRS, knowingly file less than complete or otherwise dishonest tax returns. Of course, you, dear reader, would never do such a thing, but you know of others that do – and most of them do it as a game, or because you believe that the rest of society needs it less than they do. I suspect that those small numbers of those who try to get extra SNAP funding are not sitting pretty in suburbia or in doorman high-rises.
The philanthropy world has been extraordinarily gutsy and outspoken about childhood bullying, using extensive resources to address a problem we all understand. There are very few families that haven’t experienced or witnessed bullying behavior [by, to, or both]. We know that it impacts learning, social development, communal comity, and individual dignity. We have not been silent on the changes we see as necessary and we have not been reluctant to expect governments, schools, and the media to respond.
It is time that we put those same resources to work, immediately, to eliminate bullying by policy. If equity means anything, if fairness means anything, if opportunity means anything, if public health mean anything, if our social and moral compasses mean anything, we have no choice.
Bullying has no place in any healthy society. Nor does enforced food insecurity. Both must be stopped.
November 23rd, 2018
I guess it was inevitable. We were attending a wonderful and illuminating dinner learning about a cutting edge and courageous program in one of the world’s most famous trouble spots. It was a low-keyed fundraiser, but more so, an opportunity for opinion makers to learn that positive developments are possible even amidst wrenching political settings.
The event was held in the palatial home of someone who had originally come from that part of the world and has become quite successful in the USA. Those of us who attended were moved and motivated by the presentations, and that is saying something since this was not a group comprised of naifs.
As the MC was bringing the evening to a close, one of the attendees shouted from her seat that she had a very important question and insisted that she have an opportunity to ask it.
“What is your overhead?” she shouted.
As it happens, the answer was very reassuring to this obvious skeptic, but it was such an unfortunate way to end the evening.
So, at the risk of revisiting a topic that those of us in the philanthropy world have addressed for years, a few observations:
• “Overhead” is a very problematic and misleading term. It implies that there are costs totally unrelated to the project. I prefer the term “infrastructure”. The term makes it clear that no project or program exists independent of the organizational context in which it sits. Someone has to turn on the lights, clean the floors, hire and supervise the staff, account for the finances, and so much more. Most [but not all] of us on the funder side know this and fully recognize that it is counterproductive to fund a program without assuring its likelihood of success. That requires support for the infrastructure. [In another place we can have a discussion about how to determine what that amount might be.]
• If we already know this, why did this potential contributor feel that her question was so important that the evening could not conclude without her asking about “overhead.” [It was noteworthy that the presenters barely alluded to the financing of this project; there could have been so many more relevant financial questions.]
We in our field deserve some of the blame. A few years ago, as information about non-profits became democratized, the rating organizations tried to develop tools for decision-making. Percentage of “overhead” seemed an easy one. After all, it was a seemingly objective number and would raise red flags to phony or exorbitant fundraisers. The problem of course, is that not every project is equal and not every organization is at the same stage of development. Most important, though, it implicitly reinforced a concept that those who were not delivering direct service are simply superfluous flab.
Those of us in the field know that, a few years ago, the primary rating organizations issued their own mea culpa on this. They realized that they had done an inadequate job of conveying what questions should be addressed before looking at fundraising ratios and, to their credit, and to our field’s benefit, they have worked hard since to make sure that the now readily available financial data is only one important indicator of the value and worth of a project or organization.
• The force of the question that evening demonstrated that we still have a long way to go. Philanthropic giving has not only become democratized through on-line fundraising and access to organizational tax returns and financial information. It has also become unmediated. The average donor or funder has the option to make direct contributions, a mostly healthy development, but most haven’t taken the kinds of seminars or courses that we and many others offer to learn how to make decisions. That evening reinforced for me that our role as philanthropoids and philanthropy educators must not be restricted to the cognoscenti. We need to be better about showing how good decisions can be informed and responsible. And we need to do so in accessible ways: the appeal of the “overhead” percentage metric is that it is quick and supposedly “objective”. If we are going to provide more useful decision-making tools, we need to do so in ways that are also accessible without forcing a level of due diligence that might paralyze a well-meaning and caring donor.
All of this is particularly important as we approach “Giving Tuesday” and end of the year solicitations. There are many wonderful and deserving causes out there, and, sad to say, some who are, to put it kindly, phonies. One should ask questions before writing that check or using that credit card. Make sure the organization you want to fund is legitimate and is not one that just sounds like one that is. For most, that means making sure that it has legal 501(c)3 status. Make sure that it is an organization whose mission and program is one that aligns with your own priorities. All of us can get caught up in emotional giving, but we don’t want to look back and say, “why did I do that?” And it is certainly relevant to look to see what criteria an organization chooses to demonstrate its success [Hint: how much you can give each day isn’t a very good criterion; what actual changes they are bringing about is.]
At this time of year, unless you are prepared to spend time doing real significant research, stick with proven non-profits. They may or may not be the most efficient, or the most cutting edge, but there is a pretty strong likelihood that your money will go to what you want it to go for.
For those who want to learn how to dig deeper, January or February is a much better time to learn how. And will lead make next year’s giving season that much more gratifying.
November 16th, 2018
This replaces a prior version of this post that was posted with errors. Apologies.
I didn’t plan it that way, but events have a way of happening. So, it was that I found myself in Berlin on 9 November 1989.
The trip changed my life [and, of course, much of the world.].
I was in Germany as a guest of what was then West Germany. A small group of young-ish [today, we would call us emergent] Jewish leaders was invited for 3 weeks to demonstrate how the nation had dealt with its shameful past and the underlying values that defined the new Germany.
The content of the trip was fascinating. Quite appropriately, it included powerful exploration of Holocaust places and remembrances. It introduced us to how education about the nadir of civilization was being taught to all school students, how there is now a policy of the military that enables, indeed mandates, resistance to immoral orders. And, perhaps most telling, it began to show how a nation was moving from memory to myth – how that terrible period will be understood long after those with direct memory are no more.
The trip, though, was not only about The Shoah. It reminded us that Jews lived in Germany for 2000 years. We saw the birthplace of what is known as Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhine Valley. We visited the birthplaces of Modern Jewry – both Reform and Neo [Modern] Orthodoxy. And much more.
Jews were not suddenly transported to Germany in 1932 to experience the Holocaust; rather there was a long,, complex, and often thriving and robust diaspora there for a long time.
And lest we think that this was only a trip of parochial interest, I have a folio from the Gutenberg printing press in Mainz in our personal collection. We sat in the home of Beethoven’s birth. And more.
And we also saw the great Wall dividing the “free” West from the Soviet East. That divide meant almost certain death for any daring to cross it. Armed GDR troops on one side had their fingers on the triggers, and the armies of 3 other powers were on the alert on the other. That was visible and palpable all the way through the morning of 9 November.
It was coincidence that I remained for a few days after the conclusion of our program. So it was that I was in Berlin that day. Today, few remember that the militaries were all on full alert. The end of the GDR was clearly in the offing. But none were confident that it would be a peaceful end. Truth be told, that no sergeant lost his cool was the real miracle of that historic day.
My own life, as I said, was changed by that – both professionally and personally. As an American, never again could I revert to the provincialism of seeing my world as disconnected to that which was happening across the Pond. And, as a Jew, never again could I view our existence in simplistic terms. History, politics, identities are all interwoven – and that trip brought that complexity to the fore. It became a defining element of my own persona, and my professional work.
The world seemed very binary at that time. When the Wall fell, optimism for a new, different, and better era seemed inevitable. We were confident that the liberties and freedoms, and even the economic success we took for granted in the West would soon become universal. Prosperity and enfranchisement for all. It was just a matter of investment, planning… and learning.
Well, 3 decades have shown us how elusive and illusory that romantic optimism was. We have witnessed nationalist and ethnic backlashes. We have seen that greed, selfishness, and myopia have made sharing the wealth of the developed world with those still in need seem Sisyphean. And, we have learned that painful lesson that not all share our vision of a world with liberties and justice for all – regardless of race, gender, religion, or national origin.
I write this for publication the week of this auspicious anniversary. Looking back now, these days and in this week, as an American, as a Jew, as a student of history, I realize the fragility of civil society, the brevity of memory, and the destructive hubris of leaders motivated by xenophobic rage,
History teaches us to be vigilant. Germany wasn’t – and we weren’t – and it took millions of lives and a radical change in world order to recover from that silence. Today the stakes are even higher. The earth’s climate change is an existential challenge to all human beings. Technology doesn’t allow any but the fiction of isolationism. And the deepest-seated cynicism toward institutions means that too many are simply unwilling to invest any energies in preserving a democratic society – not just in the USA but in too many places.
Looking back, the Fall of the Wall did not usher in an era of guaranteed freedoms and prosperity for all. It did usher in a time of great challenges – and choices. I am trying hard not to be trite, but if there was ever a time to learn from the past, an historic moment with much to teach us, and with moral values that need to infuse our thinking, this is it.
November 8th, 2018
A friend and honored colleague in the National Speakers Association, Bruce Weinstein Ph.D., is known as The Ethics Guy.
He speaks and writes extensively about ethics and high character leadership and has a regular column for Forbes online.. Recently, he has been expanding his conversation about ethics to those beyond the business sphere. Thus, he has asked for my thoughts about my particular expertise in this discussion, philanthro-ethics and why they matter.
First, some definitions: Ethics involve choices. Unlike morality where there is a “right” and “wrong”, ethics means that there are competing claims – each of which has some legitimacy even if they may not be equal. Ethics is also not a synonym of “legal”. There are many times when what is legal falls far short of recognized ethical standards. [Would that it were otherwise!] The law is too often nothing more than enacted self-interests and not reflective of true public interest. I am confident that no reader needs examples.
Why is this so important in the philanthropy world?
Underpinning philanthropy, and thus philanthro-ethics, is the extraordinary disparity of power that is endemic to the financial divide between those who want/need and those who have/give. Anyone who has heard me speak or teach for the last 18 years is well aware of my concern with this power imbalance, and the particular challenge that funders have. It mandates that funders develop a sensitivity to the “conscious use of self” in settings where grantees and potential grantees are present. It is incumbent on funders to make it safe for those who need our funds to tell us the truth. It is obligatory that our funding enables the greatest likelihood of success in whatever we choose to fund – and allows for the inevitable failure of some of those projects. It is a profound imperative that our decisions be informed by those who will be most impacted by our decisions.
[For the record, I am delighted that both NCRP and SSIR have recently also entered this discussion in a big way. Their combined reach is far greater than mine and therefore should have more influence on our sector’s behavior than my writings and speaking over the years have had.]
Best practices in philanthro-ethics extend from the board and board room, to how we define our relationships with external entities through our conflict of interest and spending policies, to what we value in our grant decisions, to the character of the relationships we maintain with our grantees.. We are constantly faced with choices that reflect the values we affirm, the affect we demonstrate, and our awareness of the roles we play in our sector, in the non-profit world at large, and in the larger public policy space.
Indeed philanthro-ethics is, at its core, simply a manifestation of the best practices that define our unique and privileged role in the world. And that role must never be taken lightly.
October 6th, 2018
The Wise Philanthropy Institute reminds fellow funders that the its most recently updated edition of “Should You Go It Alone? – A guide to collaborations, partnerships and mergers” is available by request. This practicum has been WPI‘s most requested piece for last 10 years.
Now, for the first time, the WPI guide on exit strategies “When the Buck Stops Here” is also available as well. This practical guide has been privately requested frequently, but this is the first time it is being made publicly available.
Both of these are available gratis by direct request – only to funders. For a copy or further information, [email protected]
October 1st, 2018
This piece was written a while ago. Because of some technical issues, it didn’t actually get published. But recent events and a professional conference have both persuaded me that it Is important to add my voice and urging to our field to maintain our voice and courage to exercise our leadership at this crucial time.
It is no exaggeration, nor much of a surprise, to say that these are not normal times. Thoughtful people may disagree on particular policies, or the role of government, or the best ways of helping people at risk, or even [maybe] about how to preserve the radically degraded environment and climate.
But what makes these times so unsettling is the overt challenge to the basic assumptions of the American system: the profound erosion of civility, the loss of belief in the separation of powers, the cynical assumption that truth is only a political articulation of a point of view and that science is no more than a partisan political perspective, the barely masked attempts at voter suppression, the sanctioned intimidation of even legal immigrants, the unconscionable tax policy that cynically rewards the affluent and penalizes the rest, the normalization of public expressions of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism… Need we add more?
In principle, none of these issues is partisan. In principle, every elected official should be able to endorse and be identified with the condemnation of every single one of these. In principle, it should be a no brainer that there should be a natural coalition between political leaders, regardless of party, with the philanthropy world to affirm that civility matters, that the separation of powers is basic Civics 101, that we can and do know facts, that every adult American has an inherent right to vote and that right should be made accessible and reliable, that a citizen is a citizen regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, or language, that public expressions of hatred are simply beyond the pale…
All of this should be a given and should be the starting point of civil society in the USA. Should be…
But in the last weeks alone:
I have heard the father of a Parkland victim scratch his head saying that he views his cause as non-partisan, and he himself is an independent. But, he said, one party has consistently chosen to consider any attempt to legislate anything that might effectively limit access to arms, ammo, or access to be non-negotiable. He may not be partisan, but one party has made it so.
I have attended a gathering of philanthropists and foundation professionals discussing Census 2020. This should not be a partisan issue at all – This process is Constitutionally mandated, and our efforts should be to guarantee that the numbers are complete and untainted. But even an official of the government census bureau acknowledged that political pressures have been brought to bear that will almost certainly distort the results of the 2020 Census, and that historic undercounting of certain minority groups will almost certainly be more extreme this go-round..
I have heard, as have you, attempts to restrict access to polling places, limit times and dates for voting, and require onerous identification evidence. This should not be a partisan issue at all. Any elected official should be committed to an open process [not being naïve here, but one would hope for at least a modicum of a commitment to what being elected is about. Yet, too often, under one artificial guise or another, these restrictions are imposed in a partisan way.
Should we tolerate abuse of search and seizure laws now being executed by at least one branch of the government? Every elected official should be demanding an accounting! Yet the silence and acquiesnce by some have made this a partisan issue.
Why do I enumerate this sad list, even knowing how incomplete it is? Because we are in a season when the electorate has the obligation to choose our future. And the philanthropy world has an obligation to weigh in on many of these matters. We have everything at stake in re-asserting a stable and civil society, eliminating poverty, rejecting racism and xenophobia, and urging systemic equity. The challenge for us is to not be intimidated by those who would limit our outspokenness under the guise of accusing us of partisanship. Of course, there are legal limitations to what we can lobby for and what lobbying we can support. But our rights, I would say even our obligations as funders, to advocate for constitutional rights, civil society, and equity for all are virtually unlimited.
None of these points is new – but they cannot be repeated often enough. The philanthropy world needs to model outspokenness for justice, courage in the face of intimidation, and articulation of ideals that should not be abrogated. This is not partisanship it is simply fulfilling our proper role as advocates for that which enables us, motivates us, and – when we do it right, legitimates us.
September 15th, 2018
This has been one of the most challenging pieces I’ve chosen to write. It emerges from hearing the same question too often recently and not having an easy answer.
What is the question? How can we persuade someone to be philanthropic if they don’t choose to be?
First, the context: For well over 20 years, most of my talks and writings have been about philanthropy. Depending on the audience, they might address emerging trends, or philanthro-ethics, or best practices, or decision-making in families and foundations, or any of a myriad of other related matters.
On the whole, my peer group and my audiences are funders. As funders, we are already committed to giving money, but not always sure about how or what will be the most impactful, or what will engage successor generations. That is where I come in – helping to make good, informed, and appropriate decisions. Until recently, I don’t recall ever being asked the question: how do we persuade someone to give?
Let me be clear. In the past, fundraisers have often asked me a related, but ultimately a different question: how do we influence or persuade funders? They are sure that my understanding of the thinking process of philanthropists and foundations will give them the magic code to unlock untold riches for their projects. [By coincidence, as I am writing this, I see that Guidestar has just published some advice for fundraisers from funders and SSIR has published an extended piece on altruism.] However, questions the fundraisers raise are built on the same starting assumption as my own – they want to appeal to those committed to being funders, not to those who don’t or won’t..
However, over the last few years, I have been asked to speak to more and more groups of investment and wealth managers, family office directors, and others whose field and expertise is more specifically on the money-making side and not the philanthropy spending side. It is an interesting contrast with my peer group where philanthropy is about giving money away. Put simplistically, money managers pay their bills based on money under management; philanthropy is money out the door. Their starting point and their bottom lines are different than the questions funders ask me. [Yes, I know that to give money, you must have it and I am not dismissing the importance of good investment decisions – but, except for impact and values-based investments, they are essentially a different set of questions.]
As I have become more visible in these settings, a number of wealth mangers have sought opportunities to speak to me privately about their clients. Most of the issues they raise are not surprising; family conflicts, succession uncertainties, determining how much is enough…. But some quite explicitly ask me how they can convince their few miserly clients to be philanthropic.
If the studies are correct, I suspect that many of these people are not hearing the full story from their clients. After all, even though the data shows some improvement, it appears that investors don’t think highly of the philanthropy advice they get from their wealth advisors. Some, as said above, are concerned that the wealth advisor is simply looking for another vehicle under management, but more likely they don’t think that their wealth advisors are very attuned to the practice of being a funder.
In addition, not everyone does or wants to do philanthropy in the American institutional style. Around the world, millions of people are generous, altruistic, and philanthropic, but they don’t express those behaviors in the vocabulary or structures the way the American philanthropic sector does. Some people do nothing, I am sure, but my experience tells me that that is very rare.
Nevertheless, I am sure that some percentage of their clients really are averse to being philanthropic by any definition, and the questions do come from a genuine belief that they should.. How then should one answer?
Let me quickly point out, as I have in the past, that avoiding taxes is a very inappropriate bottom line reason for someone to give. If lower taxes is one result of a healthy thought out philanthropy strategy, no problem, but to eliminate taxes as a goal is unlikely to be persuasive and, as I have written previously, morally wrong. Further, every study of which I am aware reinforces this perspective. When funders are asked about why they give, tax deductibility is usually # 4 or 5 on the list. [It may play an important role in how one structures a philanthropic gift but not whether to make one.] But none of these studies talk about a more basic underlying issue of why one should give in the first place.
As I mentioned above, research shows that being altruistic, the very act of giving, makes one happier. [viz., Jenny Santi’s “The Giving Way to Happiness.”] Philanthropic generosity is present in every society. Giving helps one go beyond oneself and serves to make us players in making the world, or at least someone’s world, a little better. This may begin to give us a clue to an answer, but this work shows how people feel when they are altruistic, not whether they can be persuaded to become so. They don’t answer the question these wealth advisors ask: How can they persuade their hoarders to share?
Some wealth advisors ask me to do what they haven’t been able to do – to talk to their clients directly about philanthropy. When that happens, unexpected things often come up. Many wealthy folks welcome the opportunity to talk to someone who doesn’t have hands in their pockets. Over the years, I have learned about ultra-high net worth families that are really angry at the advice that their famous private bank was giving; in other cases, I have been told of much deeper pockets than revealed even to their long-term wealth advisors. I have met with art collectors who have more difficulty deciding about the ultimate distribution of their art collection than how to endow their offspring; and many more. However, none has ever asked me to convince them to be a giver – only how to be.
Perhaps, though, the impact investment developments of these last few years may give us a clue to a possible answer I have been asked for my independent analysis of whether values based/impact investments are a fad or a movement. [I should underscore that I have no expertise as an investment advisor – only in helping people understand in non-jargon-y or self-interested ways what it all might mean to them.]
It is this last point that may lead to a possible answer to the question of why be philanthropic. How? Every investment has some implicit set of values: What we spend our money on is rarely neutral: we choose what we eat, what we wear, where we live, with whom we socialize, and so much more, based on some underlying value system. Not everyone makes those choices with self-awareness, but many of us do. Why not unpack our personal financial values system? Lots of folks aren’t so thrilled when they realize that their personal investments endorse environmental degradation, or underage child exploitation, or self-aggrandizing and excessive executive pay. Even choosing to say that financial returns matter more than where those returns come from is itself a decision.
Modern investment theory calls for some sort of balance in our portfolios – a.k.a. the prudent investment approach. Thus, by definition, something is going to earn less or more than another part of the portfolio. So, if that is true, there is nothing wrong with making values-based decisions on one’s investments. [Sure, some ESG [Environment/Social/Governance] or Socially Responsible Funds underperform, but many more outperform their benchmarks. It is no secret that some of the largest investment companies are seeing ESG standards as preconditions for long term results.]
Money itself may be value free, but where and how we use it and keep it isn’t. If so, why not consider having at least some of it reflect values one cares about? Asking the question this way may or may not lead to philanthropic giving, but it is likely to lead to more self-awareness of the underlying values of what one does with one’s money.
The final possible answer is that not everyone is ready to think about matters of mortality, the disposition of their estate or resources, or the needs of others at the time we decide to discuss it with them. Sometimes we simply must be there when that moment does come and to be open to understanding what people share at that time. We may well discover that our friends, family, and clients have been more self-reflective and philanthropically open than we ever imagined.
August 27th, 2018
We recently had occasion to discover our inner toddler. You know, the gleeful pleasure in knocking things down… blocks, books, and pretty much anything else that gets in the way.
In our case, it was more voyeuristic. Directly across the street from our apartment is the site of what will be the new world headquarters of a major hotel company and one of their hotels. When completed it is to be one of the largest buildings in the area. It remains to be seen – literally and figuratively – whether it will be the aesthetic asset the developers promise.
But one cannot build a new building until one removes those already on the site – and that removal has proven more than a little captivating.
At first, we assumed that we would see a straightforward demolition – the kind that a toddler would do – an enthusiastic knockdown, let the Legos fall where they may. We sat captivated as the large equipment began to destroy what people had carefully built a couple of generations ago. Huge equipment with jaws and shovels and who knows what else. At the pace they were going, we were sure it would all be done in a day or two. Clear it all away and start the next phase.
However, what we realized was that we were not watching a demolition but a deconstruction. That huge equipment might have been able to demolish those buildings in a day, but the highly skilled operators were doing something else. They were taking the buildings apart in such a way that the elements were being separated, – metal beams here, metal rods over there, and in another building, bricks here, windows there… and ultimately some piles of remaining detritus just piled up waiting to be removed.
Deconstruction, we realized, is a recognition that not everything that is demolished is to be discarded. Within these long vacant and no longer viable spaces remained much that still has value, that should be reused somewhere. Change was/is inevitable, and often desired, but it need not require that everything that needs to be changed is to be discarded. The toddler stage passed quickly as we became ever more fascinated watching the care that is used in this dismantling and deconstruction. We grew ever more respectful of the planning and the incredible skill that these hard-hatted craftsmen used in delicately making distinctions among materials.
This is an all too obvious cautionary metaphor for the work of innovation and reinvention – disruption- that characterizes our era. It is one thing to take down the structures of the past, but making distinctions among the detritus and that which still has value, and ultimately what should be constructed its place… ah, there is the rub.
Which brings me back to the word of the last decade – disruption.
Disruption writ small describes every intervention in a business or organization. Over the last decade, almost every one of my speaking or consulting assignments has included the expectation that my role was to “disrupt” their audience, foundation, organization. Looking back on it, many didn’t really mean it. They wanted to wake up their group, not challenge anything essential about what they were doing. Yet “disruption”, even writ small and even with limited expectations, has implications.
To take but one example: Some readers may recall an article I wrote about site visits as a way for funders to gather information about potential grantees. In the article I cautioned that a site visit is a disruptive intervention for non-profits. Cleaning up, setting regular work aside, prepping for the funder means that hard pressed smaller non-profits are doing something other than their primary work. If we as funders really need that site visit to help us know what we need to know to make our decisions, it is a justifiable disruption, but if we are doing it just because we can [or read somewhere that we should], it is of questionable ethics and value.
A strategic plan, an evaluation, a development plan, a leadership change – each is a normal and justifiable disruption. They all lead to some sorts of change even if that change is more self-reflective decision making or conscious affirmation of the prior ways of doing things or reinforcing the organization culture. As normal as they may be, every one of these interventions disrupts the time, the approach, the articulation, the aspirations – and because of that should be entered into with full awareness. If done well, every one of these disruptions can be helpful, but no one should ever underestimate the implicit cost of time, energy, and even money that they incur. When done really well, [and/if the circumstances warrant], these disruptions can prove fully transformative. And if not….
Writ large, disruption has come to mean something much more transformative. Our ways of life get disrupted in profound ways sometimes: the invention of the printing press, the concept of individual rights and the nation state, modes of transportation are just a few examples of prior transformative disruptions that changed the way we know things, get places, see ourselves, and set expectations.
In recent years, several disruptions have transformed key elements of our lives, and are continuing to do so. To take just two: On-line shopping has led to the change in the way many people spend money; the internet has changed the way most of us communicate and know things.
These macro disruptions have led to the demolitions of brick and mortar shopping, the virtual disappearance of bookshops, radical changes in how we know/learn things, how we relate to others, even our attention spans.
Some of this disruption has been informed by genuine attempts at deconstruction: making choices more abundant and efficient, making information more readily available to anyone with a smart phone and not be dependent on an intermediary. But they also have led to consequences not fully understood prior to the disruptions: what do you do with all those empty store spaces and those left underemployed because of that, how do you account for the anarchization of knowledge – with truth becoming more elusive by the moment and its concomitant political dangers. Not fully endorsing responsibility for the consequences of disruption can yield destructive demolition and not authentic deconstruction of past institutions, mores, and systems.
In macro disruption, the implications are great. It isn’t just transient interruption of an organization’s daily game plan but the dislocation of whole populations and economic stability.
Social networking is an important example: I believe that Facebook et al allow a reestablishment of more normal set of relationships, albeit in an entirely new format. In the past, we always knew lots of incidental things about people in our circles or neighborhoods. Most of those things were trivial but gave a vibrant character to the wide range of daily relationships. In late modernity, however, suburbia and high-rise apartments reinforced the atomization of our experiences, leaving people more disconnected and lonelier. FB gives us lots of incidental information about our extended circles that reminds us that our worlds and personal histories are more robust than the episodicity of highly orchestrated and planned get togethers. It restores the incidental and serendipitous.
But – and this is a very big but – all of this comes with an all too brief history of how to control mis-information or attempts at willful and malicious disruption of the political ethos. We are struggling with the benefits of massive democratization this medium fosters vs those who are malignant abusers – and, ultimately, who should be empowered to make decision. If we don’t get it right, we will have demolished established ways of relating to people, however limited, without the careful deconstruction that allows us to save the value imbedded within.
A goal of our era is to transform our world through creative disruption. But, unless done in a way that the essence of how we learn, how we share public spaces, how we account for economic dislocation, how we respect the other, the replacements will never achieve the transformative values that they are supposed to represent. Those of us who are disrupters need to tread delicately – since the future, our future, profoundly depends on that.
Yes, one can learn a lot from a destruction site.