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May 2009

The Groupery - Technology to Support Volunteer Groups

Do you run a small volunteer group, like a PTA group, bowling team, club? The Groupery seems like a free resource you would want to consider:

At the groupery, our goal is to use technology to make fundamental improvements for volunteer groups of all shapes and sizes. We provide free, simple, but essential web based services that "change the game" by making their efforts far more productive, efficient, and rewarding than previously possible. Along the way we’ve assisted and learned a lot from innovative volunteer group leaders and figured we shouldn’t keep their secrets to ourselves, so we created a "leaders" community to foster collaboration and sharing.

There blog is here.

Celebrating the Marriage of Conscience and Capital

The superego, as Zizek has said, bombards the ego with impossible demands. To which demands the ego responds with a shrug. Life goes on, guilty conscience or no. So Philanthropy, like the conscience, bombards her loving spouse, Capitalism, with impossible demands for kindness, justice, fairness, and good will towards all. But should her husband give all he has to the poor and follow Jesus, Philanthropy would divorce him and marry some other rich Pharisee, to serve as his Social Conscience. 

C.f., "The Moral Dimension of Philanthropy in an Era of Scarcity," by H. Peter Karoff.

C.f, "Will Women Fund Their own Revolution," by Helen LaKelly Hunt.

Philanthropy sits in the Parlor discussing justice. Her husband and her husband's fraternity brother sit in the counting house, discussing the real money, not just the pin money given to Philanthropy, along with her shoe budget, dress budget, and budget for cut flowers.

The women of wealth and the children of wealth are ardent for giving, whole hog, unstinting.

C.f, Bolder Giving

But knowledge is power, and the power that comes with mastering the money, the power that comes from sitting at the planning table, is denied these women and children. Ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is guilty. Best that the two conversations, that of wealth planning and that of philanthropy remain as separate as weekday is from sabbath, or conscience from superego.

If a vision of justice were awakened, would it not be best to keep it in the dark? If my daughter were to give away all I gave her or half of every dollar, I would love her dearly and give her nothing, or little enough. We who have knowledge and power must protect the innocent from themselves. For this we have estate planning, trusts, guardians, and the budget the wife and child get for philanthropy. How sweet they look!

C.f., Inspired Legacies, by Tracy Gary.

When inspired, Philanthropy may yet knock on the door of the counting house and take her rightful place at the head of the table, responsible not just for giving, but for maintaining the family wealth and the hegemony that goes with it. Or?

You Mean I got this Harvard MBA for Nothing?

Leading minds at Harvard Biz School seem surprised and a little upset that US capitalism or crony capitalism or business as we have known it through the bubbles is not coming back, no matter how much debt the government injects to replace all the dodgy debt now going bust.  Some of them look young enough to learn farming, cobbling of shoes, or how to fix broken down Chryslers.  Too bad their training is of no use.  Maybe they could learn Chinese.

I actually heard a Harvard Biz School professor at a conference of 100 wealthy Chinese Americans saying, in effect, "I guess we were wrong about so much. We will have to rethink what we teach." The Chinese diplomat, on the dais with him, smiled  genially.  The point the diplomat made is that China is a proud country and that relationship with her should be positive. Americans ought not to harp on sore points, like, presumably, trade surpluses, currency manipulation, censorship of the internet, persecution of Falun Gong, poisonous chemicals in toys, pollution, and the like.  When their grip tightens, I hope  the Chinese are more gentle with us than with their internal critics.

Whatever the free market/democratic experiment was that counted as the "end of history," it was not Chinese, or Korean.  Hyundai makes damn good cars.

Lifeboat Ethics in an Age of Terrorism

Garrett Hardin from "Lifeboat Ethics, the Case Against Helping the Poor":

So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of 60. Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat or for handouts. We have several options: we may be tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being "our brother's keeper," or by the Marxist ideal of "to each according to his needs." Since the needs of all in the water are the same, and since they can all be seen as "our brothers," we could take them all into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.

Humanity will grow like a cancer or locusts until the earth is ravaged. Best to let the poor die off, lest our fragile position in comfort be disturbed.  Individual acts of kindness are forgivable weaknesses. But to engage in generosity by policy decision is a moral luxury we cannot afford.  I find myself wondering how the parable of the lifeboat plays out if the ship that sank had been a navel vessel, and those in the water and in the lifeboat were all armed with pistols.  Hundreds in the sea with pistols.  50 in the boat with the same. Maybe it depends on who is the best marksman; Darwin would love that, I guess.  The brilliant philosopher in a pitching boat, shot dead by an illiterate poor person with a steadier hand. This is the best we can hope for, in this hard world. Shame and a pity, but pitch the carcass to the sharks and carry on.

Philanthropy as Acte Gratuite

Private philanthropy as self-expression, not just means to a strategic end. Sean Stannard-Stockton at Chronicle of Philanthropy takes up that thought, in the spirit, it would seem, of H. Peter Karoff. In one of his essays, Peter likens a philanthropic role model to Midori teaching a gifted protegee how to play the violin. We are probably getting to the point where advertising, like poetry, is becoming an end in itself, as is the art of political spin. I can see how the masters of such a craft would do it for nothing, or pay to do it, for the sheer joy of it.  I'll bet there are some too who would do enhanced interrogation, or blow a city to bits, even knowing that it would yield no real benefit, for the sheer visceral joy of it. There is no accounting for taste. 

Senator Grassley on Split Interest Gifts

One of the most conceptually interesting and in practice one of the most divisive issues in "donor-centered philanthropy" is captured in a blurb below from a legislative update provided by Partnership in Philanthropic Planning. They are quoting Senator Grassley with horror, but he is making a point of fundamental interest.  Donors get deductions today for gifts to vehicles which benefit no one but themselves in the year of the gift, and maybe for many years thereafter.  This timing difference allows, in fact, profit-making third parties to get into the middle of the deal, and to manage the funds that are being held for future delivery to "real" charities, as opposed to financial vehicles, or "charitable buckets," as they are sometimes called.  That managing the money aspect attracts banks, brokers, investment advisors; and, these intermediaries are now, as recent studies by PPP show, an increasingly dominant force in philanthropy. What this means is that increasingly, money is piling up in places that benefit a) the donor and b) the financial intermediaries, but which provide only a slight or no current benefit to the frontline charities feeding the poor, or otherwise filling in the social safety net or contributing to the arts or other public goods.  Why, Grassley, is asking should taxpayers subsidize the wealthy today for benefiting themselves today and charity tomorrow? I must say that the points deserve more than a horrified response from advisors and fundraisers. Grassley's points deserve to be faced up to and addressed.  Here, from an emailed update, is the PPP blurb.

Also, late last month, while commenting on the FY 2010 budget resolution and a PPP-supported amendment to extend and expand the IRA Charitable Rollover (see story below), Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, labeled "split-interest trusts" as "worrisome." He continued, "just like with donor-advised funds and supporting organizations, the contribution does not result in an immediate benefit actually providing services while the donor receives a significant tax benefit at the time of the contribution." Senator Grassley concluded his remarks, "we should make sure that grant-making entities, including split-interest trusts, are accountable for paying out minimum amounts to actual charities before we allow them to receive IRA rollovers."

Among the "charitable buckets" which provide a tax or financial benefit to donors and often to money managers, salespeople, planners, and/or attorneys, today with a limited or no benefit to front line charities in the year of the gift are these:  Charitable Remainder Trust, Donor Advised Fund, Private Foundation, Supporting Organization, Conservation Easement, Pooled Income Fund, Gift of Life Insurance, Beneficiary Designation on Retirement Accounts, Gift of Home with Retained Life Estate.  Having said that, which is simply true and must be acknowledged, the benefit of these tools to society is that they are helpful in getting donors to let go of the money at all. Without these incentives for both donors and advisors we would not have a perfect world in which everyone is generous and gives for all and only the right reasons right now to frontline charities. We would more likely have a worse world where advisors, attorneys, planners, money managers and their clients, find some way other, more rewarding way, than philanthropy to invest their time, money, and talent.

Jesus set the bar so high in philanthropy (give all you have to the poor and follow me - right now) that those committed to purity in caritas (love and charity) must be saints in the making.  I have personally come to the conclusion that getting the Scribes and Pharisees well paid and the rich comfortably coddled is the best way to advance the interests of the poor, short of  moral action in community with others, which candidly, is not something I would bet on.  You would have to be a fool, or poet, or prophet, to expect unmixed goodness to motivate anyone.  I stand with the crass, the control freaks, and the vulgar.  And, I suspect I am within conspiratorial whispering distance of Senator Grassley on that moral high ground, the political grandstand.  

How to Select a Nonprofit (or Person) to Fund

Sallie B. and William B. Wallace fund the the Chair in philanthropy I hold at the American College. Here is a two minute video of them talking about how they research and fund causes and "the people who are making a difference."  The body language speaks as much as the words.  This is a couple for whom philanthropy is a felt responsibility, a passion and a joy.  In other communications they have said, "We just did not feel we could enjoy our financial success unless we shared it."