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November 2006

Pierre Omidyar: Repo Man

Repocover Media for Change:

One philanthropist, Phillip Cubeta, declares that Pierre's version of philanthropy is actually micro-loan sharking on his blog.

Well, it would be loan sharking if Pierre sics the Happy Tutor on the deadbeats. As long as Pierre doesn't become an International Repo Man, it would be philanthropy, up to a point, I think. It comes down to whether he forgives the bad debts when the people are very poor, and cannot pay. That would be charity, right? Bust them good, that would be a profit maximizing social venture, right? So where is the middle ground? When the two bottom lines, caritas and profit, conflict, how are they balanced? (By redefining true caritas as sending in the Repo Man?)

Tom Watson

Word on the street: "Tom Watson is emerging as Mr. Philanthropy Blogger."  A journalist for over 20 years, he edits onPhilanthropy: A Global Resource for Nonprofit Professionals,  and also has a personal blog.  I will read him for awhile before hazarding an opinion. So far I see a good writer, a good business person, a deft follower philanthropic trends, a good builder of personal networks, a realist, and a centrist/Democrat committed to being inoffensive in pursuit of real world objectives like electoral victories, market share, profit, etc in an age where the wealthy bear it away on all sides.  I hope there is more to him than that and would read him with interest looking for points of personal passion or bequiling eccentricity, or better yet moral outrage.

Robertson Foundation versus Princeton

I received a link to this Robertson versus Princeton website addressed to me from "Nobody" and clearly sent to philanthropy bloggers. It would appear that the battle between the Robertson Foundation and Princeton over donor intent will be fought not only in court but also in the press and on the blogs.

The Robertson gift seems to have been structured (back in 1961 when it was originally given) as what is called a supporting organization, or private foundation under the wing of the university. The purpose, in endowing the Woodrow Wilson School, was to educate students for government service. The board appears to consist of 3 members of the Robertson family, and 4 members appointed by Princeton, giving the school effective control. Now the board appears riven, and the meltdown has ensued over, among other issues, of whether Princeton made good on the donor's mission.

Without opining on the merits of the case, what lessons might donors and heirs learn? Maybe don't use a structure in which you cede control if control is paramount? Maybe don't give a big chunk all at once, rather than doling the funds out gradually, as the nonprofit performs? Or, maybe don't expect to control after you are gone, or trust your heirs to do it; better perhaps to put the money to work more quickly, and handle the processes yourself? Or, maybe, be gracious, let go, and trust the judgment of the organization to which you entrusted the bundle?

Any way you look at it, we seem to be in an era where "ownership," "control," donor intent," "social investment," "accountability," "metrics," and "social return on investment" all point to the tightening of control of philanthropic dollars in the hands of the giver, as opposed to the organization to whom the money is given. Hewing to donor intent seems almost like keeping a bargain or keeping faith. If organizations don't, donors or their heirs may be bitter, and gifts may dry up, not only from that family, but increasingly from donors as a group. On the other hand, if a gift is a kind of partnership with the organization on whom the gift is bestowed, shouldn't the donor cut the organization some slack? And might society too be a party to the gift, and along with accountability to donor intent, might we raise the question of legitimacy? Do gifts come to seem less legitimate as "public spirited acts" deserving of tax favored treatment, and the honor accorded big gifts, if donors and their heirs require control in perpetuity? Do we as a democracy become more like a country ruled by an Aristocracy, or by Pharaohs from their tombs, if a family with its own particular philanthropic, and no doubt political views, can turn a University like Princeton into its minion, or instrumentality?  Do we want one family  calling the shots on how students are selected, trained, and placed in government service by one of America's best schools?  Don't we actually as a nation want a little of checks and balances in the system where donor intent is a key factor, but the recipient organization also has some rights to use independent judgment? And with a supporting organization, with the board under the control of the recipient organization, shouldn't a donor appreciate going in that the school would have the final say? I don't know. I do think the issues require sober discussion, because so much is at stake, from so many angles, for the family, the school, for the precedents set, and for America and the world affected by those in government service. Without knowing all the merits, I would be hesitant as a citizen to say, "Whatever the Robertson family dictates under their mission is darn good thing for America." I hope the national interest or the public interest has a recognized stake and an audible voice in the debate, even if it is one factor among others, to be honorably weighed by the nonprofit's board, and failing agreement there, by the courts.

Link here to articles on the case from The Daily Princetonian. A quick Google search did not yet reveal opinion pieces by Martin Wooster or William Schambra, but I would expect them to weigh in soon on behalf of the Robertson family's donor rights and the outrages perpetrated by liberal elites.

Giving Online - Community? Or Atomization?

Albert Ruesga on The Young, the Generous, and the Connected. Will giving online be more than a transaction? Will it foster communities with a sense of shared destiny, with a stake felt by each in the lives of the others, and with stories and symbols that unite us outside the dominant narrative of consumer culture that some call "The Ownership Society," others call "The Society of the Spectacle," Free Markets, or "Wealth Bondage"? Will giving online bring us into community or confirm each of us as isolate self? To create many-to-many spaces online where we can cultivate our humanity as gifted givers in community with others is still a dream in progress. Thank you, Albert, for gesturing in the direction of Gifthub.   

Andrew Carnegie: How And Why To Defund the Rich

Tom Matrullo meditates on Andrew Carnegie.  Did philanthropy make the steel baron even more ruthless? And would higher profits, lower wages, and more libraries be a good formula for today's social investors? One way or another social spending has to come from a levy, either voluntary or involuntary - either taxes or gifts. The difference is that taxes may be extorted from the selfish, and are so far more fair, and they are distributed not by the whim of the benefactor, but through our elected representatives. Surely, higher taxes and less private philanthropy would be a more expeditious way to improve the lot of the many at the expense of the few? It would also spare us a ton of flattery. When has the IRS had to sweet talk a tax payer into paying his or her fair share? We could eliminate fundraising as a profession, and return the fundraisers to productive employment.

Carnegie famously said that it shames a rich person to die rich. Couldn't that be handled easily through the tax code, with all wealth, well or ill gotten, returning to society as the dead person's body returns to dust? 
In this way we could prevent the concentration of capital in too few hands, and reinvigorate our democracy.

All in favor of expropriating Bill Gates's fortune say "Aye."

Gayle Roberts Has Her Nerve

"Philanthropy World News Online edition," by Gayle Roberts at Fundraising for Nonprofits. If she wrote any better or with greater truth she would have to taken off the streets, tortured, shot, and buried in an unmarked grave.  You are an asset to democracy, Gayle; please dial it back a bit. When we get the Constitution working again, you can open your mouth. Until then, it is not for the likes of us to find fault with the people in charge. On a festive note, the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Plaza will be lit on November 29.  Click here for times and prices. It is all good.

We Are Smarter Than Me

Be part of a publishing revolution

Be an author of the first networked book on business.  Together we will write the book on how the emergence of community and social networks will change the future rules of business.  Collaborate with authors from MIT, Wharton, and thousands of professionals from around the world. See your name in print when the book is published next fall by Pearson Publishing. Meet your co-authors in March, 2007 in Las Vegas at the Community 2.0 event.   

How will royalties be delivered?

All authors will will receive an equal vote on the distribution of book royalties to charity. It is possible that in the final editing process, the substantive comments you contributed might conceivably be cut from the book -- much like star actors whose best work was "left on the cutting room floor." Whether your work is included in the printed version of the book or not, every author will be assumed to have advanced the state of thinking and will therefore participate equally in the decisions about which charities should receive the book royalties. Royalties will be sent annually to those charities selected.

Seems like a great concept.