Friday, September 7, 2012

Spend It All?

 "Spend it all Jay!" - opposition bumper sticker seen during U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV's first Senate run in West Virginia.

An article by Jim Dwyer in the August 8 edition of The New York Times profiled the remarkable philanthropist Charles F. Fenney and his efforts to do just that - spend it all. "All" includes the $6 billion he has already given away since 1982 through his group of foundations called Atlantic Philanthropies. His goal is to dispose of the remaining approximately $1.5 billion by 2016.

Mr. Feeney, now 81, made his fortune by inventing and operating airport duty-free shops internationally. He sold the business in 1997, at which time he revealed that his wealth was the source of Atlantic Philanthropies,which he had managed to run anonymously for 15 years, even though it was one the largest grant makers in the world. Gradually he has opened himself up to publicity in an effort to encourage others of great wealth to become major philanthropists. Warren Buffett has termed Feeney the "spiritual leader" in that effort.

He resembles Mr. Buffett in his eschewing the trappings of wealth. His clothes come off the rack, he lives simply, on a side street in Manhattan, not on Park Avenue in a penthouse, and until recently he flew coach. He believes the problems of the world need attention, now before the solutions become even more expensive. Dwyer quotes Mr. Feeney: "When you've got the money, you spend it. When you've spent it all, let someone else get going and spend theirs." And so,with the exception of bequests for his five children, that is what he intends to do, or as he puts it: "I want the last  check I write to bounce."

It probably won't surprise you then that no building made possible by a gift of his bears a inscription with his name. Furthermore, he set up his philanthropies in Bermuda to avoid disclosure requirements, but because he did, he could not take tax deductions for his contributions.

This completes the counter cultural picture of Charles Feeney's philanthropy. For one thing, it is counter to the culture of "naming" as a reward for contributions. Who hasn't seen capital campaign appeals that list naming opportunities, sometimes even before making the case for support of the project. Paving bricks, exhibits, theatre seats, wings, entire buildings, etc. In a recent visit to a Boston museum, I even rode in an elevator named for a donor.

Please don't misunderstand me. As an administrator of nonprofits who has taken part in helping to raise some millions of dollars for capital projects, I know the power that the opportunity for public recognition brings to attracting contributions. It works. Certainly it can be overdone, where donor names clutter up space in a kind of philanthropic wallpaper. And occasionally  the background of a major donor  causes embarrassment. In the late '80s the Saudi Arabian international arms dealer Adnan Khassogi pledged millions to American University, where he was a trustee, to build a sports and convention center. When finally constructed it bore his name.  An outcry ensued and the name was removed only after he reneged on the remainder of his pledge.

Sports stadium naming has become a huge income source for both professional and amateur teams. It is a form of high profile marketing. In 1999 the internet service provider PSINet spent $100 million to have the new Baltimore Ravens stadium named PSINet Stadium. Then the company went broke and M&T Bank got the stadium name. Just as well, as apparently many Baltimoreans had trouble pronouncing PSINet and resorted to nicknaming it the "Piss Bowl." 

Finally, in a bizarre use of naming influence, Penn State University suggested last April to the Paterno family that it would rename Beaver Stadium for Joe Paterno in exchange for the family agreeing not to sue the university. The family declined.

The selfless philanthropy of Charles Feeney is rare.  How many have or will follow his example? The important message that everyone in the nonprofit field hopes will stick is that the very wealthy will want to open up their wallets wide to support nonprofit missions. A naming here and there is welcome and appropriate. Spend it all? Charles Feeney raises the bar, challenging especially those at his level of wealth to join him in making a big difference to society.