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July 2005

Changemakers, Troublemakers, Courtiers and Clowns

(Below is an open letter to Tracy Gary, who asked how, beyond my dismal professional bio, she should introducing me to her progressive funder friends.)

Dear Tracy,

Yup, been thinking because you asked, about how I see myself beyond my corporate self. The answer is not "financial advisor," nor "trusted advisor," but teacher in a certain very specific tradition. Education comes from "educere" to lead out. Socrates saying that he was (incongruously) the "midwife" to his interlocutors, helping them (male though all were) give birth to what is already within them, latent. Also, as model (in humility) I follow the Trickster Jesus of the Gospels. And also, Diogenes, the naked man in the barrel who accosted the wealthy of his day, including Alexander the Great, and helped them, as would a Zen monk, to awaken, often by setting them paradoxes, or rousing them to fury just short of violence. I do not believe any more than you do that philanthropy will save democracy. It cannot, obviously. The rich are blessed in their own way, but the truly gifted/accursed are the artists, the poets, the prophets, the holy fools. That is the role to which I most deeply aspire, or better yet, am most deeply stuck with. So, I play the fool and the courtier both. But the fool is for keeps. The courtier  "financial services professional" is an IQ Test for the client, my various bosses, and colleagues. Most flunk. Diogenes naked in the streets with his lantern in broad daylight, seeking the honest wealth holder, the honest power broker, a "trusted advisor." That is me. The Trickster who teaches by getting the other off balance. Beware. Of course, I do know sprezzatura, the style you suggested some well bred donors expect. (You know it is from Castiglione's Book of the Courtier? A handbook on how to prosper at Court among the knaves?) I will be as gracious and deferential with your friends as would any courtier to Queen or King. But you asked for an account of who I am. That is it: Troublemaker, as Peter Karoff once said to me. Troublemaker for democracy, maybe not unlike you and your cousin George Pillsbury when you were then as I am now, just a beginner. Haymarket - wasn't that a labor riot?

As an ex-college professor, let alone a financial services trainer, I am reconciled to misreading. Even at Yale many a future ruler of the universe could not follow an agile writer. So, instead of being hard to read, I am very easy. As easy as a billboard or a children's sock puppet. Unless you understand me. At which point I am nothing but trouble. In me as in a raven is the grapeseed. Shat out, it grows to the intransigent vine of Dionysus and democracy. The red wine of the grape, spilled from the Cross, drunk as blood from a chalice - believe me, I meditate on that, as a good lapsed Catholic with a humane education. I have about as much choice in this as does a man or woman in being gay. I can be in or out as one called to foolishness in the public square, but I can't change, only be broken. With you, and through your example, I am finding the courage to be my strange self, Harlequin in patches, "a Socrates gone mad," as Diogenes said. Philanthropy is teaching, but the payoff is activism. For me that means the liberal arts, the arts of freedom, not a passive thing to watch and admire, but to imitate, among the Pharisees, in the public square. What stands a chance of saving us is someone like Martin Luther Kind or Vaclav Havel.  And people like that are not waiting around for permission or a grant. Some of us aren't even waiting for real artists. We just shit out what we can and pray that it contains here and there a fertile seed amidst the dung. You know all this. Or are the carrier of it. It is not a blessing, but a calling. And the call is not to peace of mind. The reason you can't shake my support is that I was going where you are going long before we met. You are an optimist by temperament; I consider that wisdom and caritas come with "brokenness and surrender." You and your cousin George have learned moderation in maturity. I have been driven half mad.

We inherit a tradition, and we pass it on. It no more cares whether we live or die than do our genes. We are the carriers, the dead husk; the living germ courses through us.  We pass it on as we received it, as a gift, the dangerous gift of knowledge, the apple Eve gave Adam. We spit the seed from our mouth. Hence the orchard. The garden run always to weeds. We live among snakes. And the fool should be as wise as the serpent.

Extinct? Not yet. Nor Born Again, but Rapture Ready.

Be well!


Omidyar on Carpe Diem Philanthropy

Just ran across this very interesting article, from BusinessWeek Online, in 2004, by Pierre Omidyar on philanthropy in the internet age. Not only does he want to give now, rather than "leave a legacy" at death - 50 or so years from now - but he also sees giving as happening within a community of self-actualizing individuals, in which each and every person is a giver. He also sees giving as a kind of investment in a social capital network (as was EBay) that grows in value as it scales (as did EBay, or the telephone, or the English language), and  that pays back in real dollars (as did EBay). The role of big givers, or social investors, is to raise up and equip the smaller givers, so they too can discover their own power to do good in the world. This is a profoundly American democractic vision, fusing freedom of speech and assembly, with entrepreneurial zeal, and Emersonian optimism. You can join the Omidyar community, or call it a renewal of the great American experiment, at Many of the people who attended the Open Space Giving Conference a year ago in Chicago are members. And many of them are getting together again in Chicago (as I am) with new friends from Omidyar July 29-31. I have been a member of since, virtually, the inception and have been staggered to see Pierre and Pam joining in the day to day conversations, not as conveners or owners of the site, but as fellow seekers and citizens.  They are the least patronizing of patrons, the least selfish of owners. You could call them hosts, maybe, or cordial role models. They also learn fast and don't mind principled disagreement, in fact they seem to thrive on it.

Dialogues On Civic Philanthropy

Great papers from diverse and distinguished sources on the legitimacy, effectiveness, regulation, and accountability of foundation philanthropy. Comes with an open discussion board. What makes the relatively unregulated exercise of economic, intellectual and political power through "philanthropy" legitimate in a market/democratic culture? Can givers (and the stingy) choose their own moral framework, as they might an automobile, nose job, or Halloween Costume? What are the obligations of wealth in a just society? The papers here raise those issues, in the bland style of successful, well-socialized, intellectuals and functionaries. The same questions raised from the scaffold upon which sits a pillory would be far more interesting to me, as having an outside chance of breaking the polite smile that seems always to accompany discussions of philanthropy. What is human speech for, if not satire? The rich can choose their own ethical systems, as can we who toss the tomato from the crowd. Hudson's site is open to riffraff (the demos) at least for now. Mind your manners! You are in the company of your betters. Do not be surprised if the discussion of legitimacy and accountability remains inconclusive.

Gifthub as More than Conversation

The original hope behind Gifthub is still alive and I would welcome comments, if this note finds interested parties. Assume estate tax is repealed or greatly reduced. Imagine a world where the rich get vastly richer and pass their wealth on unhindered in a new (at best) aristocracy. Imagine government programs cut back, and chances for advancement for working people and poor people reduced except for those who have an aptitude for going along to get along with the ideology of those who have "made it." Imagine philanthropy as both the offset to such a world, and also its adornment or ornament.

I would like to imagine a "hub" where wealthy people of good will, advisors to wealth, and talented people from all walks of life can meet as in some ways equals - as citizens. We would meet to advance shared ideals, including the ideals of open society, pluralism, caritas, justice, and passionate disagreement within an atmosphere of mutual respect.

I believe there is a "business plan" or social venture plan that might support or undergird such a hub. Advisors want clients. Donors need advisors. All require education, tools, and processes that enable them to work together more effectively for shared ends. All today hide out talking mostly to others in the same professional or sociological silo. Major donors do not attend the conferences of professionals. Professionals are conspicuously uninvited to donor forums.  Either group talks about the other in stereotypes. That is vastly dysfunctional for the givers, advisors, and the talented people who might volunteer.

With my friend and hero, Tracy Gary, I am mooting about ways we could make this hub come into being as a nonprofit enterprise or association. She has uptake from donor friends. I have some from advisors. If anyone has thoughts, I would welcome comments or emails. Beyond that, onwards!

By the way, I recognize the "liberal" slant of my remarks, and acknolwedge a rooting interest in progressive causes. But liberalism to me means risking my views in open contest with those to disagree. Therefore, the hub has, or should have, spokes into conservative, libertarian, and religious networks. The point of open society is precisely that it is inclusive. Someone like Lenore Ealy, for example, or Bill Schambra, or Amy Kass, who are associated with conservative viewpoints would be considered valued colleagues if their networks were enlisted. The point is not to agree on ideology but to second one another's practical efforts for a common good. I have known many compassionate conservatives, as well as many Evangelicals, whose passionate and self-sacrificing efforts for others set a high example. A true Gifthub would network the best together, and welcome the war of ideas, within a shared regard for one another and for those who are less fortunate.