Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It seems appropriate that we've placed a day of Philanthropy the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.  After we've indulged on food and satiated consumer lust, there's Oliver...asking for more.

Most of us, myself included, treat philanthropy as an "and then."  After we've taken care of ourselves, purchased whatever we need (and a little of what we don't need), we save what's left for nonprofits.  I would never trivialize the amount any one person would give, but collectively we're falling short.  And the internal dialogue doesn't change - "How can I give money away when I have a mortgage, car loan, etc.?"  We are unsurprisingly frugal when nonprofits come calling.  But for reasons uncertain, or certain, but pleasantly hidden, those refrains do not apply to other indulgences in our lives.

I didn't sit down today to talk about guilt.  No one has an obligation to give money away to anyone.  I just wanted to talk about the why and why not's of Philanthropy.  In one of my previous jobs, I was tasked with evaluating the personal finances of strangers for security clearances.  In the Midwest and the South, we very often would come across applicants who would tithe their income, despite huge mounds of debt.  By most in my office, this was treated as "weird" and "irresponsible."  Considering the  tremendous stress that debt brings, you can see how our attitudes towards "giving money away" are very different based on the culture and community we immerse ourselves in.  Some see philanthropy as a frivolity, while others see it as fundamental as paying the mortgage.

I recently sat down with a man who had found himself very wealthy after a number of successful business ventures.  He noted, "As I was coming into a lot of money, my financial adviser told me 'People will be coming to you for donations.  You should set up a fund.'"  In doing so, rather than giving dozens of thousand dollar donations, he was able to make meaningful contributions with targeted goals.  That seems to be the future of philanthropy.

Not all of us can give "dozens of thousand dollar donations", but we can make "meaningful contributions with targeted goals."  The real problem with philanthropy is that it has been cheapened.  We make our nonprofits "Dance (or wine taste) for dollars" and sanitize the underlying community need.  For all of the black-tie-pig-roast-5K-wine-tasting-paperboat-pizza-sales you've participated in the last year, how much concrete "good" did you actually get to feel?  Or did you leave empty?  Like you just overpaid for dinner that was cold and served in bite-sized portions?  And for $75-$200 a pop, that's what you get. 

We need our philanthropic community.  Not just for the homeless.  Cancer is a profitable disease.  Diabetes is a profitable disease.  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a profitable disease.  Cures makes for a bad business plan.  Athletics, art, education, and anything else that has a cost in excess of its market rate, would drown in a corporate culture that is very good at making you think that you have everything you need...until you need to buy something else.

When it comes to this topic, I often feel like I am yelling into a pillow.  Not because you don't care (although I know some folks will skip this post based on the title alone), but because the problem is just so big, while easily ignored. 

We need to find a way to give each philanthropist, no matter their ability or interest, an opportunity to make meaningful contributions with targeted goals.  Personally, I believe the mechanism is through donor-advised funds with your local Foundation, but we can't limit ourselves to narrow avenues.  I can't help but feel that $100 Dinners will be anachronistic by the time I'm 70 and not because we've moved on to $1,000 Dinners.  It will be because we've stopped tricking people into being philanthropists.  We finally made something concrete out of contributing to the public need and allowed for more than a distant touch on the "good" that money provides.  We're there now, but it will take some time to turn this tanker around.  In the meantime, keep that tuxedo in your closet.

Here are some Giving Tuesday Partners to consider contributing towards today:
Columbia Festival of the Arts
The Arc of Howard County
Bridgeway Community Church

Some other local organizations to consider:
Columbia Foundation
Voices for Children

That's all for today.  Two days without links!  I must have a lot on my mind.

Have a great Tuesday Giving to what you love!