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June 2008

Giving at the Crossroads

NewinfinityThe Post Per Se

Imagine that the left loop on the infinity sign is labelled, "Consciousness" and that the right hand loop is labelled, "Community." The neck where the two intersect is the crossroads sacred to Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods. He is the god sacred to all who frequent that shadow land: beggars, pickpockets, minstrels, strolling players, merchants, demobilized soldiers, spies, itinerant poets, and thieves. His marker is the Herm, a stone figure with prominent phallus. (I hear that one of Socrates's students in a time of war went around knocking the cocks off the statues.  Socrates was convicted for teaching students to desecrate the gods. His punishment was to drink poison and die. This story too is about consciousness and community, about sacred and profane truth, and coming to enlightenment, and its rewards.)

Between consciousness and community the roads go both ways. Our consciousness is formed by the intentional and accidental communities of birth, family, town, tribe, nation, ethnicity, and by the artistic, ethical, political, and spiritual traditions that animate the communities with which we identify and by which our identity is formed. Marketing, brands, propaganda, no less than pickpockets, prostitutes, and thieves frequent this crossroad, forming our minds as befits not citizens or humanity, but as befits consumers and loyal subjects of a King, or loyal followers of a political party.

At the crossroads (where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for unholy riffs on the blues guitar) you also find the voluntary associations that carry on what is best in our culture, our communities, and our consciousness: schools, religious organizations, arts groups, libraries, open source projects.  These organizations carry forward through the ages what would otherwise be lost or scuttled by those who would have us be their servants, producers, or "hands."

At the crossroads (where money is exchanged for goods, pleasure, and power) there also we find businesses selling whatever money will buy, whether for good or ill: potion, poison, drugs, fodder, food, whatever it might be.

At the crossroads (where advisors meet the client as King and Queen with Courtier or Fool) plans are laid, financial plans, estate plans, legacy plans, venture plans, political plans. It is from such plans, for good or ill, that money flows to the intermediary organizations that express the client's consciousness, and flow over into creating the consciousness of a community, for good or ill.  When gifts from the gifted are well planned with conscience they support the intermediary structures that make us human, in the honorific sense. When the dollars flow to the worst of these consciousness creating institutions (where think tank thinkers, pundits, journalists, and marketers trade lies for dollars and preferment) what is expressed and passed on and perpetuated is our humanity in its most horrific aspect: falsity, cunning, oppression, war, and death. 

At the crossroads (beside the squeegee man) stands the Beggar.  "Give me a penny and I will sing you as song, but give me the penny first" (Swift).  Or call that Beggar, that Dumpster-Dweller, The Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families and to the Professionals who with the god Hermes serve the wealthy so well on their Journey from Success to Significance.  May Hermes blow out the tires and leave them stranded, clients and advisors alike, some dark night, as far from Success as from Significance, at an unmarked crossroad, with no option but to get down and walk the rest of the way. I know a man who wrote a poem about it. In fact he wrote at least two more about how your getting lost at the crossroads is about right and may be the only chance you have. If you are lost enough to find yourself, you are past significance on that journey to where it feels more like humility, or brokenness and surrender. When the cry of despair comes out as laughter, call me, ok? You will deserve your own Dumpster, and we will honor you as one our tribe.

End Notes: Dedicated to Hermes, Pan, Dionysus, Rabelais and that whole tribe

Herm For the infinity circle as encompassing consciousness and community, I am endebted to a talk by Gerard Senehi of EnlightenmentNext. I also endebted for this post to two books by Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property and Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. As a Trickster Genius myself, I cannot explain to you the full brilliance of my own work and all its hidden meanings, much less that of Lewis Hyde who actually won one of those Genius Grants. I am not shitting you. He did. As for me, I was Inspired, I guess, writing this post. In any case, I am a bit disoriented, if only from the beer I had beforehand. For a good gloss on this post, please see my ever serious colleague, Dr. Amrit Chadwallah. He can get you squared away with the literal truth should that be your own speed.  It will cost you though.  As for my obscenity, you go knock the cock of the Herm at the crossroads between art and philanthropy. I won't. If philanthropy is as bloodless as you make it, what will save us? We really would be lost.

Partnering with Advisors for Happy Clients and Large Gifts

Thursday through Saturday of last week I was in Houston for a workshop with Tracy Gary and about 30 nonprofit professionals and a handful of financial advisors. We discussed how to uplift the philanthropic ecosystem by getting donors, nonprofit and advisors to work together more effectively.  We agreed that good planning begins for a donor or a client from the donor/client's vision and values. We also agree that clients need good plans.  Where nonprofit people and advisors differ, I think, is the scope of the plan controlled by the donor's vision. This is a hugely important point; let me make it clear with a real world (now fictionalized) example.

Max Smith, age 70, sells commercial real estate. Last year he netted $14 million. He has zero interest in philanthropy, but is increasingly interested in doing something new. He feels he has one more big project in him and is casting about for what that might be.  His net worth is $100 million. Max is married to Lorraine. He gives her a $30,000 a year charitable budget. He and Lorraine have 2 children in their 40's. Both children have one child. All is well with the kids and grandkids. But Max and Lorraine are concerned about "how much is enough for the kids." Lorraine is concerned too about the health of society. What kind of world will these children and grandchildren inherit? What whirlwind will they reap?

Maxine is a "major donor" to Women's Foundation of Anytown, USA.  Maxine has worked through Tracy Gary's Inspired Philanthropy and has created a giving plan in the light of her vision and values, and her long term goals. She has decided to reduce her scattershot giving and to focus increasingly on the Women's Foundation.  She will up her gift this year from $10,000 to $15,000. She will also serve on the Board. Her sense is that it is women who will lead as we all seek to preserve a loving, just, and sustainable community for our heirs.

As an advisor, what I see is that the one with a vision is Lorraine, but that her vision only governs a piddling $30,000. The sad fact is that Max has not acheived a long term vision at this point. Another sad fact is that he is not a giver, yet. And a big sad fact is that he and Lorraine will owe, say, $30 million in estate tax some day. Perhaps another sad fact is that the children will inherit the remaining $70 million, more than Lorraine and Max may feel the kids really need.

As an advisor I believe that the vision for this family should govern and drive the entire $14 million a year of income and the entire $100 million of assets. For that to happen someone has to debrief this couple about their shared vision for the rest of their lives, for their children, their grandchildren, and for society. I suspect that Max will dominate the discussion of the numbers, but that he may well defer to Lorraine for a vision that goes beyond self and family. When it comes to kids, grandkids, and the claims of humanity, her voice may prevail.

I am reasonably sure that with proper planning this case calls for annual gifts over one million and a legacy of over $30 million. That would be a going in expectation. The real numbers will flow from their deepest, mutual goals. I also suspect that in setting specific giving goals that Lorraine may take the lead not only because she has the heart for it, but also because she has the relevant expertise and experience. She has been out and around in the community. She has served on boards, done volunteering, done site visits. She knows what fuels her own passion, and she knows the needs of the community. She knows what might interest the children and grandchildren, and she knows her husband well - what would interest him and engage him if he does decide to do one more major project. Perhaps he too will go into nonprofit service, or perhaps he will start a social venture.

Who knows where this case will go; it is a real case and it is still open. Max is meeting with a woman who is not a financial advisor, but a nonprofit person who holds herself out to the public as a giving consultant. Now, if this consultant operates with blinkers, she will work hard on that $30,000 annual giving budget. If she caught the point of view I was presenting in Tracy's workshop, she will get Max and Lorraine to clarify their big picture life and legacy goals. Then she will get them involved with advisors who can do financial and estate planning with a philanthropic twist. Net results? Mostly likely $50,000 plus in planning fees for the professionals. Commissions to advisors for products sold, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, particularly for life insurance for estate planning. Annual giving budget increased by a factor of 100 ($3 million annual rather than $30,000 annually) and a legacy up from zero to at least the current amount slated for estate tax, say, $30 million. If $1 million each is enough for the kids, then maybe the charitable portion is $98 million. Who knows; but these are quite reasonable outcomes given the facts above. 

So, when you say you start with vision and values and do a legacy plan, what do you mean? Are you a giving professional who tweaks the $30,000 giving budget, trying to increase it a little, or to get a bigger slice, or are you the one who engages advisors and nets tens of millions of dollars in gifts now, later, and at death?

Working well with advisors is just working smart; and, it pays off in better plans for clients, and bigger gifts for charity. Also, the advisors to whom cases like this are referred will likely reciprocate with referrals back. 

"What's the Deal?"

Spartacus O'Neal on following the money and power through open source research:

Whenever I am asked to advise or intervene in social conflict, I ask myself, "What's the deal?" Because conflict is almost never what it seems.

Most activists don't do this. Most activists assume that conflict is based on misunderstandings or misguided good intentions, when in fact they usually involve malice and fraud.

As an example, the plethora of post-9/11 homeland security programs were never intended to address security, but were put forward as budget scams by agencies and political appointees to capitalize on public fear and confusion. That's why we always conduct background research on key players and their connections as the first step in developing an estimate of the situation.

Continue reading ""What's the Deal?"" »

Open Source Local Political Research

Mill U: Creating Community Under Duress:

Few realize how easy and effective open source research can be. I try to emphasize what a visit to the county courthouse can sometimes yield...Once I read the entire county budget in advance of hearings where the council was to explain why social and environmental programs were being cut, and handed out evidence of tax evasion through zoning manipulation and favoritism—with names of big shots who were sitting in the audience. People literally read from our flyer into the public record in front of the media.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paulofreire Paulo Freire, from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970:

Any attempt to "soften" the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this "generosity," which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.

In the Oppressor/oppressed or Master/slave or Donor/recipient relationship, the subordinate party generally identifies with the superordinate party, and hopes to please, placate, cajole, win over. The subordinate may aspire to someday be the superior, and this urge to replicate the system is encouraged by the superior as showing a good attitude. (In our nonprofit world this urge to be like the oppressor may take the form of getting an MBA. In politics it may take the form of a call to bipartisan comity, above the fray, in charge as moderator.)

Freire makes the deep point that the oppressor, or the whole system that we call good corporate governance, or wealthbondage, is thoroughly introjected into the oppressed, or menial, or cubicle denizen. He goes on to suggest that to liberate both oppressed and oppressor from this game of mirrors is the work of the oppressed, for the oppressor is too heavily invested in the dysfunctional/functional dyad to change it. Bringing Freire  home to "our business and our bosoms," as Dr. Johnson used to say, can only mean that the worker must liberate the boss, the consumer liberate the producer, the disenfranchised liberate the owner. The prisoner liberate the jailer, the condemned man the judge. Such was the work of Jesus as depicted in liberation theology, now much reviled by the oppressor and eschewed by the oppressor's mild apologist. In America a black man can be President. What oppression can there be? What injustice? Why raise our voices? Why check our pay stub, or the rising cost of food?

In a weak moment, I asked my generous patron and long-time boss, Candidia, if I might liberate her from her oppression of me, that she might be more humane, less monstrous, more fulfilled, happier and more virtuous. Her boisterous response was not something I can print on this blog within our Style Guidelines. We maintain a high tone here in keeping with our subject matter and our highly educated, upper class audience, as well as out of respect to our Advertiser, Wealth Bondage, and their distinguished patrons. But when you are as rich as Candidia, you can say what you want, I guess. Hope I can have her corner office some day. Better mind my p's and q's in the meantime. Whatever she wants, she gets. I am sure she knows best or she wouldn't be where she is. "Be like Ombama," she said, "and someday, Sweetie, maybe you can maybe be my #1 Butt Boy."  That part I can quote, I think, because while a bit salty it is clearly good advice.