Wednesday, November 9, 2011

1%-99% Philanthropy

As its central mantra the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement declares it represents the 99 % of Americans left behind by the 1 % who represent the wealthiest in the country. There is no doubt that the disparity and income gap portrayed is astonishing and disturbing. Largely ignored, for better or worse, has been what the 1% does in the way of philanthropy. Some recent gifts are as eye-popping as the wealth from which they must come. As examples: at the lower end $40 million to Harvard, $40 million to Seattle Children’s Hospital in a bequest, $150 million to The Stanford Business School and the winner - $265 million to Carnegie-Mellon University. Philanthropy Today reports all of the biggest donations this year have gone to universities, most designated for buildings or specific programs/institutes. These gifts have come from individuals.

Now The New York Times reports in a special Giving section (11/2/11) that the OWS spirit has brought more focus on the philanthropic record of the 1%: “As America’s needs grows, philanthropy and how it is carried out are being questioned more closely,” states the writer Stephanie Strom. The problem, in sum, is that needs, especially human needs, are expanding as government support contracts. The question is: what is private philanthropy doing to fill that widening gap, and if it is, who is doing it?

Last month, homeless people spent eleven days camped outside the $500 million HQ of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (assets $37 billion) to secure a $30,000 grant to make up for City of Seattle cuts that had closed shelters. The protest ended when the city restored the funds. At the same time the Foundation declared its record of having previously spent over $47 million on homeless issues.

My calculator doesn’t do billions so I can’t figure what $30,000 might be as a percent of the income generated by the Gates Foundation assets. The Times article asserts that many Americans give to help people but that the richest appear to favor large gifts to universities, hospitals and the arts. What might the OWS folks think about the Times headline of November 4 announcing the gift to the Stanford Business School: “Couple Donate $150 million to Fight Poverty in Developing Nations.” Giving USA reports that although charitable giving increased in 2010, donations to human needs nonprofits fell 6.6%

Several major donors interviewed in the media have stated that large donations to food banks for instance were not “fulfilling.” The billionaire William E. Conway Jr. told The Washington Post that he has given tens of millions to food banks and such but that had not proven to be satisfying: “Somebody’s hungry, we give money to the food bank. It would be far better if we had a more permanent solution.” To illustrate this point, the old saw is often cited that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him one.

The etymology of the word philanthropy is from the Greek, roughly “loving mankind.” Warren Buffett has pledged the greatest part of his riches to the Gates Foundation but according to The Times declares that his sister Doris is “the real philanthropist” in the family. For over ten years her Sunshine Lady Foundation has focused exclusively on helping individuals in need. The Foundation responds to letters from people requesting dollars for everything from wheelchairs to refrigerators – funding dental work is often a plea. She regards her philanthropy as investing in people and says: “the best return is when lives change for the better in some way…”

At a recent church service I listened to a reading from Scripture that included this from Isaiah (Ch. 58): “….if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…”

Don’t misunderstand me, the multimillion dollar generosity from the 1% to large institutions, many of which contribute greatly to our society, are of vital importance. By the same token, in this time of economic peril for so many, let each of us keep firmly in mind the nonprofit organizations who direct their work to helping those who are needy within the 99 %. Those nonprofits, and the thousands of volunteers who support their efforts, are our philanthropists on the ground and they find fulfillment in knowing what a difference their time and money can make.