I admit that I do read most of the advertising supplements in the magazines to which I subscribe. If advertisers are pumping a lot of money into publications I like I ought to at least see what they have to say. I’ll even admit that I read the supplements about diseases in the New York Times Magazine. (Well, not all the diseases. But most of them.)
Most of the time these supplements are, well, advertising. But I found one in the December 23/30 New Yorker, produced by RBC Wealth Management, said quite a bit about the state of philanthropy today.
The anonymous piece has one important piece of news. I learned from this article that Bill and Melinda Gates have decided to change the termination date for closure of the Gates Foundation from 50 years after the death of the surviving spouse to 20 years. Since it’s usually the case that donor intent in a perpetual foundation vanishes 30 years after a donor’s death, the decision of the Gates family is the right thing to do.
The article has a strong emphasis on what they call “spend-down giving” and I would call “term-limited foundations.” They have talked at length with Joel Fleishman, a public policy professor at Duke.
Professor Fleishman and I have never met. But we wrote very similar books. His, The Foundation, celebrated what he saw as foundation successes. My book, Great Philanthropic Mistakes, sees many of these cases as dismal failures. His book has stayed in print for seven years, while my book went out of print and into a revised and enlarged second edition.
Fleishman interrupted his time at Duke to serve as president of the Atlantic Philanthropies, the largest foundation that has announced a termination date. When he returned to academia, Fleishman has stressed the importance of spending down endowments, both in his own work with the AVI CHAI Foundation and with other scholars at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy. He is right to do this. The cause of putting term limits on foundations is one that both the left and right can agree on.
If the emphasis on term limits is the good part of the New Yorker supplement, the rest shows how far too many donors spend way too much time coating their grantmaking with unnecessary layers of pretension.
Meet Maggie Williams, profiled in the supplement, who inherited a lot of money from her step-grandfather and who decided at age 33 to become a donor. She joined a group called Resource Generation, which is so far to the left that they published Between the Silver Spoon and the Struggle: Reflections on the Intersection of Racism and Class Privilege, a book undoubtedly more painful than a root canal. Resource Generation is the sort of group that praises Corliss Lamont, a hardline Marxist infamous for his hearty praise of the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s worst excesses of the 1930s.
So it’s little wonder that Ms. Williams says her goal as a donor is not to help the poor but “How do we get at the root causes of inequality?” Of course, if you’re thinking about the “root causes of inequality” instead of fighting poverty, you’re already in trouble. But it gets worse! Williams “assembled four associates.” (Where did she find these “associates?” IKEA?) She then decided she would put up all the money but she would only be one of five votes in how the funds would be spent; the result was “a cross-class collaborative.”
Williams also started a donor-advised fund and says she will think about other ways to give. “It’s an open question what other forms giving can take for me in the future. It’s a matter of trying to figure out how to build meaningful relationships in the process.” (She’s dating her grantees?) “That’s what makes it feel worthwhile and real to me as opposed to just transactional.” (Say what?)
“I’m certainly one of many examples of young donors working collaboratively, thinking strategically, trying to get to root causes, and be really authentic about how our privilege impacts our role.”
I’m sure Maggie Williams and her colleagues on the hard left have never had a friendly conversation with a conservative. Let me offer a suggestion. Get rid of all the jargon! Think about what you’re doing in plain English—and don’t feel guilty about being rich. Being a donor is a great job, one so rewarding that you shouldn’t have time to agonize about what you do. If you don’t cloud your mind with argle-bargle, you’ll be a better donor.
And to RBC Wealth Management: thanks for buying four expensive pages in the New Yorker and keep encouraging your clients to spend down!