Saturday, April 29, 2017

Pluto Philanthropy

The words plutocrat and  plutocracy are increasingly being used, given the makeup of our government at the highest levels and a trend in giving. No, they don't refer to the dwarf  planet or a beloved Walt Disney character, Mickey Mouse's pet pup. The words derive from the Greek ploutos meaning wealth. A plutocrat is a person whose power or influence derives from wealth and a plutocracy is defined as a government ruled by the rich.

Of the 16 members of the Trump cabinet two are billionaires and 12 are multi-millionaires. The total net worth of the cabinet members is $4.5 billion. No one quite knows the net worths of the president or his children.but certainly it is safe to assume they are in the upper millions.

If the recently announced tax reform package, skimpy as it is in detail, is any indication, the main beneficiaries of proposed tax cuts will be the rich. There appears to be a bone or two thrown to the middle class, but they are bones that Pluto the Pup might ultimately find undernourishing and unworthy even of burial in the backyard.

Philanthropy has its share of plutocrats too. In February The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its list of the 50 Most Generous Donors in America in 2016. The total given by those in the list was $5.6 billion, with a median gift of $55 million. There are familiar names here such as Bill and Melinda Gates  (#9), and Michael Bloomberg (#2). Topping the list were Phil and Penny Knight (Nike) who gave an astonishing $500 million to  the University of Oregon along with another $400 million to Stanford.  In fact 48% of the total given by the listed donors went to colleges and universities.

So, what could be wrong about this generosity? Like anything else revolving around money, power is the issue and that what is being increasingly discussed. A recently published book by David Callahan "The Givers: Money, Power and Philanthropy in a new Gilded Age" was the subject of an article in The New York Times April 14 that included an interview with the author. He calls the megadonors "super citizens" but questions the wisdom of their ability to donate where they want and for what purpose with little accountability - for instance to either shareholders or voters.

In matters of policy he cites the examples of Mark Zuckerberg's well-meaning venture into improving the public schools in Newark NJ, where he invested $100 million in 2010 in what was a "top down" effort to influence performance and behaviors of schools and their administrators. The results were widely viewed as failed, with the main beneficiaries being the consultants -  not the students. Might there have been a better investment of these dollars towards education reform?

To be sure, there are many examples of successes that Callahan cites, such as the Gates' emphasis on public health  and vaccinations.The point is not to belittle the generosity but rather raise an issue framed by Mr. Callahan: "philanthropy is rising as government is falling. Ordinary people do not feel their voice counts. They feel the wealthy have too much power and calls the shots."

What gives the public the right to question the prerogative of private individuals and foundations to give away money as they see fit? For one thing, as a matter of public policy, these "super citizens" (I rather like "pluto philanthropists")  receive billions of dollars in tax breaks. As an example, the U.S. Treasury estimates that the billionaires that signed the Buffett/Gates Giving Pledge -those who agreed to donate to charity 50% of their fortunes- their gifts would cost the government  an estimated $740 billion in lost tax revenue over ten years. For that, the ordinary citizen has at least the right to call the question.

I am putting aside the almost age old tradition  - at least back to the first Gilded Age with the likes of Andrew Carnegie-  of donating big bucks and getting your name on a building. The stakes have risen however. with hedge fund mogul  John Paulson getting his name of an entire graduate school at Harvard - The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering. That is what $400 million will get you at the richest university in the world, one that nests on a $35.7 billion endowment.

There's the old play on the Golden Rule: "Them that has the gold makes the rules."  But the inequality gap is widening rapidly in America and that is not healthy for our democracy. Recall that  the etymological root of the word democracy is the Greek demos - people, with cracy, from the Greek kratos, power or strength.

In the case of  the super gifts, at the least more transparency would be welcome, especially in the arena of donating to tax exempt advocacy groups that espouse candidates or public policy issues, such as education and health care reform.

With all the attention given to these mega gifts, the donors of small amounts to local causes dear to respective hearts should not be intimidated or forgotten. These donations, often made year after year and in some cases at some sacrifice, are the bedrock of our nation's philanthropy.

I love the stories of unknown philanthropists, which I have reported to you from time to time. I leave you with one to cheer you up, should that be necessary. On April 14 the Boston Globe reported that one James H. Connors had died at age 89 in Medford MA. Mr. Connors had lived for years with his (also unmarried) sister Thelma in a small rented apartment in a vinyl-sided house. He ran a lock and key service. Unknown to anyone but his lawyer he had inherited a sizable stock portfolio. His legacy was more than $3 million to create a foundation that, starting this summer, will annually award $3000 scholarships to 50 high school students in Medford.

Thank you Mr. Connors and thank you all donors, mega or mini, whose gifts make a difference.

Comments on this post, or any other found in the website archive, are always welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com












Friday, March 31, 2017

NPR, CPB, a Coal Miner and a Single Mother

In speaking to the media about the Trump administration 's proposed budget that includes zeroing out funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the director of the Office of Budget and Management Michael Mulvaney asked: "Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mother in Detroit to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?"

His statement  reveals a familiar posture of Republican conservatives, namely the assumption that NPR/PBS' programs are too elite for the "common man" (the same applies, of course, to the arts and humanities endowments). Mr. Mulvaney must have missed the searing documentary "The Mine Wars" aired on PBS in January of this year depicting the efforts beginning in 1901 of West Virginia miners to unionize. He also has bypassed any episode of Sesame Street, made available on PBS to all mothers, single or not, and their children since 1969. But we are not talking about reason here.

Like children, eager to avail themselves of the contents of a candy store where they previously could only get to the samples on the counter, conservative Republicans now have plundering access to all the goodies, with control of the Congress and the White House. For years they have been trying to undo CPB, NEA and NEH. I remember all too well the "culture wars"of the '80s and '90s from my vantage point in DC serving as executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ('80-'84) and Director of Government Affairs for the American Association of Museums ('87-'92).  I was deep in the trenches then and not alone by many means.

The first real threat to funding came in 1981 when president Ronald Reagan and his budget chief David Stockman tried to cut NEA funding by 50%. Provocative images by artist Andres Serrano ("Piss Christ') and the homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that appeared in NEA-supported museum exhibitions in the late '80s provided plenty of grist for the mills of far right senators, such as Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Year after year since , the attackers have been storming the ramparts; the defenders have been managing to beat them back, but not without sustaining heavy losses. The budget of the NEA today only equals 70% of what it was in 1979.

Advocates for federal cultural  funding have years of battle-hardened experience and an army of supporters ready for the fight to come. My guess is that these agencies will survive, given the picayune size of the agencies' budgets, the comparisons to which have already produced good ammunition (nine presidential visits to Mar-a-Lago will cost $30 million, equal to the annual salaries and expenses of the NEH) and the fact that, for instance, NEA funding can be found in every Congressional district. But survival at what cost?

The issue is really not so much about the money. Symbolism is at the core. Opponents call federal cultural funding a "frill" (George Will used that term the other day in the Washington Post, not for first time I bet) and charge the work of the agencies is geared to elitists. Supporters, such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, value the cultural agencies both for the content and the symbolism of federal tax dollars, though mere, being expended in support of the arts and humanities.

In a March 30 column Kristof  wrote: "The arts humanize us and promote empathy.We need that now more than ever." Amen to that.

p.s. You can reach any congressional office by calling 202-225-3121.

Comments on this or any other of my 60 blog posts (see archive), are welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com





Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Appealing to Donors: "Think Small"

A New York Times op-ed piece last December by the social scientist Arthur C. Brooks made an impression on me. Entitled: "To Make the World Better - Think Small"  he argues that we are so  bombarded by reports  of various events where the main news is presented as a statistic - "50,000 homeless in earthquake-torn ________", "Hundreds of thousands without power in snowbound Northeast" that we lose sight of the real story - the human one. He cites the term coined by social psychologists: "psychic numbing." We  become inured to core meanings by the emphasis on numbers.

The antidote to psychic numbing he suggests is to think small. He  references an old fundraising axiom: "One is greater than one million." We know that is true by the humanization of disasters through photography - a firefighter carrying a small child out of burning building, a 5 year old   Syrian refugee boy's body washed up on a Greek beach. These images make up the difference between a statistic and a human story. They inspire the viewer to action.

Bringing this concept down to everyday nonprofit fundraising, too often I find appeals for funds,  publicly or privately made, are number-oriented. "We had 000,000s visitors, 000s schoolkids in classes." A cynic might  say "so what?" but that's not fair to the nonprofit staffs and boards who are proud of  the organization's public draw and have reason to crow about it. But think how much more effective the appeal would be if it had a human story attached to it.

I have been impressed by TV ads from  New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City where former patients give personal testimony about  the hospital's healing and care. These are testimonials with impact. Smart politicians know the power of personal stories. There has hardly been a State of the Union speech where the president doesn't recognize an invited guest in the Gallery - a wounded veteran, an heroic policeman, a child who has recovered from cancer - and speaks to why they are present. During campaign seasons, candidates never fail to call out personal anecdotes about constituents, recognizing them if they are present or reading aloud from their heartfelt letters.

Some nonprofits have an easier time mining sources of personal testimony. Social service agencies, and hospitals come to mind because their work has a demonstrable effect on people or, in the case of the ASPCA, animals. Museums and performing arts organizations have to be more creative.

Where I have seen success there is in profiling donors and their motivations for giving in order to find common ground with others for focused philanthropy. Mr and Mrs. X explain in personal terms why they have made a bequest to museum Y. The viewer/reader might respond: why yes, I feel the same way and if this couple found it rewarding, why wouldn't we? (The described rewards might also include reference to tax benefits).

So "think small." Find and celebrate stories with heart. And, in fashioning an appeal, remember what the English novelist E.M. Forster wrote in Howard's End: "Only connect! ... only connect the prose and passion and both will be exalted."


Comments on this post and others in my blog, are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com.
Previous posts may be found in the archive to the left or by scrolling down from this page.



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Preparing to push back Trumpism - A Modest Proposal for Nonprofits

The depressing inauguration and the uplifting Women's Marches are over. Now we face the future with its inevitable challenges, forecast in the chaos of President Trump's first weeks. There will be many challenges and they will come at us fast and furious: budget cuts, de-funding Planned Parenthood, the arts and humanities endowments, public broadcasting, scale back of environmental regulations, etc. The Trump administration will undoubtedly utilize a "shock and awe" strategy to confuse and catch opponents off-guard. It will be like the anti- missile technique in military aircraft, releasing many chaff targets (proposals to say nothing of tweets) to  divert accurate attacks and divide the opposition.

In November 2012, after the election that returned Barack Obama to the White House (ah, those calmer days!) I posted a blog entitled "Either Way You Get your Dog Back" urging readers to get to know their elected officials at all levels of government, heeding the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill's admonition that "All Politics Is Local." I repeat that today LOUDLY.

On November 6, 2018, a date just around the corner, all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 33 Senate seats, and 14 Governorships  will be up for election. Those should be the prime and ultimate targets for the ordinary citizen - the voter- who wish to set back Trumpism.  In the meantime, how to block initiatives that you find inimical to your beliefs and that injure institutions and programs you hold dear?

The answer is vigorous advocacy. Writing and calling legislators and attending meetings and rallies, joining your voice to those of others. Taking action, in other words, personally reaffirming your part and belief in our democracy.

The challenge is the many demands on your time from various organizations. suggesting means and content of sending messages, some of which  may be contradictory  I have a suggestion that might help. It is based on my belief that nonprofit boards and their supporters generally represent the best in their communities - people of substance and influence. To the extent that is true, how to harness that energy and civic strength in the cause of advocacy?

The answer can be found in organization and information. And so I propose each nonprofit board name what I would call, for the sake of this argument, an Advocacy Captain. This person or team would be responsible for the following:

First,  assess the interests and institutional allegiances of members of the board. Those may well include issues outside the mission of the organization on whose board they serve.

Then, based on that information, track the initiatives of the government that might have an impact on those interests and identify the legislative committees and executive departments that have the decision-making and/or oversight roles. It is important to discover the outside national groups that represent the specific interests  of local organizations. For instance, for a museum board,  it would likely be the American Alliance of Museums. Those national groups will already have much of the information needed in your own advocacy effort.

Finally, the Advocacy Captain needs to inform board members of the contact avenues for action intended to influence outcomes for their respective issues, as well as the most effective communication techniques. In the past weeks as the groundswell for civic action has grown there have been many helpful recommendations from, for instance, former congressional staffers, on how best to have your voice heard.

An inevitable question that will be asked: as a nonprofit can you engage in advocacy or, to use a more loaded term, lobbying. The answer is yes, with some limitations. What you cannot do, and what would endanger your tax-exempt status with the IRS, is to engage in a political campaign by endorsing or funding a candidate. Likely you have a lawyer on your board who should be consulted to provide guidance and peace of mind on the lobbying question..

But my "modest proposal" (no relation to J. Swift) is really directed at empowering individuals on your board, not necessarily the board itself as a corporate entity. It is intended to help those board members, as citizens and constituents, to become more effective advocates.

For advocates, whatever the issue, focus and stamina will be needed in the months ahead, supported by good and timely information. Try out the Advocacy Captain idea on your board. You might well find it welcomed. And recall from Shakespeare's As You Like It:

 “Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.” 

Comments on this and other blog posts to be found in the Archive to the left are welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com