I was included today on a conference call with a major bank. They are doing a national survey of high net worth individuals (HNWIs) on philanthropy. The blue ribbon panel (on which I am an improbable member) will guide the survey and help the bank position itself as a "thought leader in philanthropy." The conversation was extremely professional, well-informed, and even idealistic. All concerned had a commitment to giving and society. Interesting, all in all. And, probably on balance it will be a big contribution to the field.
Patronage of philanthropy: Who funds "thought leaders"? Is there a space from which the conversation can be convened for all comers from the Dumpster out behind a mega-bank? Or from the public square, where the voices of high net worth citizens - fine prospects for financial services, for philanthropy, and for legal services, as well as for luxury goods, and donations to lobbyists and political candidates - speak for themselves, one to another, and many to many, among the undeserving poor, and other losers, rather than having themselves debriefed by surveyors on a phone bank? The insights, with a blue ribbon commission funded by a bank, flow to the central power, whose power and prestige are then elevated, and that is a good thing, I guess. Knowledge/Power flows to the center and is then disseminated, as the bank's study will be, benefiting all, with the bank the well positioned middle term.
What is missing is the raucous buzz of conversations forming on the margins, finding their own center unaided, and moving knowledge and power away from the centralized well-funded hubs with their avid interest in the High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs). There are people like me in these big financial hubs, with training in both finance and the liberal arts, or in religion, who want to ask you (if and only if you are rich), "What is the meaning of life - in general, and yours in particular? And, where does giving fit? And would you like to talk now that we have clarified your values, to our charitable trust department, our dynasty trust department, our investment unit, our financial planning department, our estate planning department, our foundation experts, our donor advised fund unit, our legal unit, our IPO Unit?" I do that kind of thing on company time, and I am proud of it. How better for an English major down on his luck to make an honest buck off being a facilitator of wealthy people and their values, however banal?
But out here in the street, by the Dumpster, after work, hanging out with my questionable friends, sharing a bottle of Thunderbird, I am doing the real deal, for which no company would pay me, to put it positively, or mildly. What we do for love of our fellow human beings, for love of our country, we do in the shadows, pro bono publico. "Truth is a bitch who must to kennel," so said King Lear's Fool, or words to that effect. If you see someone coming calling my name, and he or she looks like they work for a bank or whatever, tell them I am not here. I am on the lam, blogging as a citizen when no one any longer is a citizen, except insofar as they are being stroked and pumped for money or votes, or the values that can be used to get them to put their money to work through a financial center for the benefit of all.
They say that Diogenes was kicked out of his home town for debasing the currency. It is a scandal: Standing naked on the street, giving away gold coins to rich people when counterfeit passes current; and then getting busted for making a mockery of social capital markets, philanthropy, thought leadership, values-based planning, the whole blessed game.
I will file this post under "the raw and the cooked." Free range philosophers are still the best, if taken with a grain of salt. Hey all you HNWIs! Stop awhile! Don't you cross the street to avoid us! Come on, Mister! Madame! Come! Get naked like us, and don't hog that bottle. We are all just humans here. We are all going to die and turn into the same stinking goo. Tell us all about what matters most to you, Mr and Mrs Rich Person. We Ultra Low Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) are soooo interested in the world you want. "No pet will die without a home"? "A World Class Opera House in Dallas"? How touching! By the way, how much cash you got in that bank over there? I hope this is not too personal, but now that we are friends, and I am practically your Trusted Advisor, could you float me a loan? I am finding myself a bit short at the end of the month.
Posted by: archy | February 09, 2008 at 10:51 AM
So then good works and personal investment in philanthropy are now competing with financial institutions? Oh wait, that's not different, just the stark view of it.
What if you set up a go-go social enterprise to funnel the HNWIs into a program designed by HT to teach them values so they might more responsibly direct their future giving? Fundraisers paid by commission on gifts, but on the back end you create whatever processes and resources to connect the givers of funds and time into working communities. Might work better than the traditional community foundation. As you point out their are a lot of untapped resources out there.
Posted by: Gerry | February 10, 2008 at 06:49 AM
Financial institutions are now philanthropic exchanges. The institution wants to be the centerpiece of the client's financial life, now and for generations to come. Foundations and donor advised funds equate to assets under management and so are a good fit between financial organizations and philanthropy. The grant-making or direct giving function is another matter. Every dollar that leaves the financial institution for a soup kitchen leaves the financial organization one dollar poorer. I am trying in some bizarre fashion to pantomime another solution. Instead of getting philanthropic advice from an institution with sticky fingers, why not get it from a bum pro bono?
Posted by: phil | February 10, 2008 at 08:50 AM
Posted by: archy | February 10, 2008 at 09:43 AM
I'm not sure what you are getting at, archy.
It seems like too passive a response. Their marketing efforts will no doubt funnel most of the money into their coffers, it just seems to me that something needs to be done to funnel it in a different direction. Would it be a problem to adopt go-go business techniques on the marketing side to funnel the money into community directed funds? Just wondering.
Posted by: Gerry | February 10, 2008 at 10:02 AM
Donor advised funds are all the rage. They are donor advised funds not community directed. If the community did have control they would likely cash out the fund and do good works. Where would that leave the bank? The world of financial services philanthropy is directed at the wealthy customer, obviously, not the charities who will maybe some day see some of that money as it trickles out of foundations or donor advised funds.
I expect soon to see a Chapel in the Bank of Wealth Bondage, as you see them in Airports. If the client wants salvation, set up the proper facility next to the Trust Department. Hire a defrocked Jesuit to staff it, or a Divine Turned Trust Officer. If the clients want their children to be civic-minded, do a convention for the best client families and invite a therapist or an inspirational speaker. The main thing is to wrap up the rich in a cocoon of services, from the most base to the most noble, that will bind them and their heirs and all their money to Wealth Bondage for eternity.
You might think I don't know whereof I speak. Yet in that world, I am apparently considered an expert to be consulted along with the biggest names in the philanthropy consulting bidnis. How many of them, I wonder, would join me here, outside the Bank of Wealth Bondage, for a beer, and a little public palaver in the presence of nobodies? Not one. They know full well how the game is played in the safe places, the sacred precincts, by invitation only, and will not break the rules or break the roles.
The high-minded have a lock on "decorum," on what is appropriate. Their selling out philanthropy to the Bank of Wealth Bondage is authentic and a public service. My sticking up for it naked in a Dumpster is a Vaudeville Act in the worst possible taste.
My Fellow For-Profit Philanthropy Experts! If we play the Fool on Company Time, why can't we play it out here? Yes, I know, you hardly know me. You won't meet my eyes. Maybe you would recognize me if I wore a suit and quoted Seneca, or Jesus, while standing at the podium, with the banner of The Bank of Wealth Bondage blazoned behind me, or on the panelists table as runner, or stamped in a huge badge on the podium. That is Wealth Bondage Philanthropy, that is where experts congregate in fellow feeling, and in service to humankind, extolled for their wisdom and virtue. This out here, in the street, this Menippean Satire, is a disgrace and betrayal of all that is holy. I will be ostracized, kicked to the curb, my expert status rescinded, the door shut in my face. "Let him rage in his Dumpster," they will say. "He concerns us not. We are in control, we are making good money, we determine who is admitted and who is cast out. He needs us, we do no need him. Let him rage naked in his barrel and be damned. He will not queer our action. Act as if he did not exist. He will get the picture. He either plays ball with us in the Bank of Wealth Bondage, or he can eat garbage from the trash cans. What is it to us? He may be the best of us philanthropic consultants, but let him die in the street with his dog. Until he learns to fetch like a trained dog, let him live like that feral dog of his, showing his teeth, defecating in the street, and pissing on the shoes of those who would have given him a chance, had he but fawned. Now, ladies and gentlemen, where were we? O yes! Your vision and values. What is your vision, Madame, of the World We Want? Let me close the blinds, so you can concentrate without having to see that madman out there parading about waving his buttocks. We are serious people. The World We Want does not include that kind of nonsense. Now, Madame, please continue."
Posted by: phil | February 10, 2008 at 10:37 AM
bambi started out a fawn. then had to give it up.
Posted by: archy | February 10, 2008 at 03:06 PM
I can picture you speaking to the crowds, some of them earnest and eager to learn from their guru how to win their piece of the pie, while an in crowd of a different sort desperately attempt to suppress open laughter while playing a bit part in the play. We will need an audio and video feed that we can pick up on wifi out by the dumpster. That way we can laugh and carry on without disturbing the marks.
Posted by: Gerry | February 11, 2008 at 07:43 AM
Masterpiece Theater sponsored by Wealth Bondage Private Client Services. When philanthropy becomes one element of a social capital market, the right person to talk with about the world we want is a properly trained financial services representative. If they can't answer your questions and get you squared away they can refer your case upwards with the Private Client Services Division until they reach a lapsed priest or former professor the liberal arts who can elicit your confession, assign penance, and provide absolution.
Posted by: phil | February 11, 2008 at 08:47 AM