Posts Tagged ‘women’

Dear Nonprofiteer, What’s this “shared sacrifice” I keep hearing about?

July 30, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

My mom works for a small nonprofit that recently went through financial hardship.  The organization did everything in its power to keep afloat, including (unfortunately) firing employees and cutting pay, hours, and health benefits for the people remaining. And it has bounced back, for the most part.

Recently managers have given themselves raises based on their own research about pay scales elsewhere. First, is this a conflict of interest? Does it seem unethical to give yourself a raise based on your own research while other employees are not given one at all?

My mom works in the accounting department and has been there for over 10 years. While the company wasn’t doing well she accepted all the cuts while taking on the work load of the people who were let go. Since then, other employees have been given raises, and now make nearly double what she does. She was even promised a pay increase for obtaining her BA in Accounting but it was never delivered.

She has brought these issues up but nothing has been done for her. She’s a dedicated worker, going out of her way to take on more work and more education for nothing more than the occasional cost-of-living increase.

Does this happen often? Is it common to see managers in non-profits overcompensate themselves even though it was their poor decisions that almost caused the organization to go under? Does it seem wrong that the employees who fought to keep it afloat have not been given the same percentage increase?

Have you come across any literature or articles on the subject?   I feel terrible for my mom because I know her work ethic and her commitment to the good the organization does for the community.  She deserves to be paid more than an entry-level accountant and her employer should have recognized that long ago.

Signed, Daughter in High Dudgeon

Dear Daughter:

You’ve asked two separate questions, really: first, is this ethical behavior?  Second, is it common behavior?  The first question is easier than the second.

Of course it’s not ethical for leaders to provide themselves with raises before restoring their subordinates to their pre-emergency level of compensation.  Employees who are considered essential enough to be retained during times of crisis, albeit at reduced pay and benefits, must be considered essential enough to be rewarded once the crisis is through.

However, many managers (and the Boards of Directors to whom they report) assume that employees are working there for the love of the agency and/or that any monkey could do the job those employees are being underpaid to do.  This is the proverbial Catch-22: we pay you so little, you and your work must be worthless; since you’re worthless, why should we pay you any more?

The only way to respond to this is to document how people who do the same job are paid elsewhere.  Your mother should use her financial skills to find out what BA accountants with similar responsibilities are paid at similar-sized agencies in your city or county.  Then she should take this documentation to the Executive Director with a specific demand for an increase in pay and benefits to at least parity with her professional peers.  It’s always harder for an ED to refuse a raise based on outside comparables, whereas if your mother tries to compare herself with people in her own agency the ED can always checkmate her with, “Well, but Ellen works three extra nights a week,” or, “But Josephine has been here since 15 minutes before you arrived.”

The other advantage of seeking outside comparables is that it will give your mother a sense of the job market.  It’s hard to think of moving elsewhere after years of loyal service, especially while feeling committed to the agency’s mission and clients.  But that’s no reason to be treated like a slave.  (And salaries from other agencies may include ones paid to men.   No one ever believes that women are paid less than men for the same work until they encounter the cold hard facts for themselves.)

Notice that the major fault is the agency’s unwillingness to restore your mother’s salary now that there’s money available again.  The fact that managers documented the market for their services, and then rewarded themselves based on that documentation, is more an apparent conflict of interest than an actual one.  If everyone does his/her job it doesn’t really signify who did the research about comparable compensation: only the Board of Directors can give the Executive Director a raise, and the Board is designed to be independent of the ED.

But perhaps the Board isn’t actually independent, which leads to the question about whether your mother’s situation is a common one. It’s very common in nonprofit organizations for the Board of Directors to be utterly in the Executive Director’s thrall and prepared to do as s/he says without any independent evaluation whatsoever. This is partly because many nonprofits are still run by their founders, to whom every Board member is personally loyal, and partly because Executive Directors manage their agencies full time while Board members govern them only part time.

So if the Executive Director of a small nonprofit wants to skim off a raise for him/herself while withholding money from his/her subordinates, it’s easier for him/her to do so than it would be in a larger nonprofit with a professional human resources department, or in a regular business.  (The Nonprofiteer herself once succeeded an ED who had helped herself to a raise: knowing that the Board Treasurer signed checks without paying attention to the amount, s/he simply took advantage of that fact.)

But however easy, or common because easy, such practices may be, they are unethical.  If your mother can’t get the raise she deserves by offering honest comparables to her boss, she should find a new job and, on the way out the door, send a letter to the Board president and treasurer (or the whole Board) denouncing the ED’s shoddy financial practices.  It won’t get Mom the raise she hungers for but she will get to enjoy the dish best served cold: revenge.

Existing forever versus doing some good

March 28, 2012

An op-ed piece a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall)  argued that donors should construct their foundations to spend down assets as rapidly as possible, lest the foundations end up supporting causes their donors would revile.  This familiar argument comes with a familiar whipping-boy: the Ford Foundation, whose enthusiasm for assisting the poor and marginalized was certainly not shared by its eponymous founder Henry.  The op-ed piece, like many of its kind, focuses on the question of donor intent, arguing that only a brief payout period can assure that the donor’s intent is served.

The Nonprofiteer has never cared particularly about the intent of dead donors.  First of all, they’re dead, and while death may not extinguish intent as a matter of law it certainly does as a matter of common sense.   Second, how much better off do we really think the world would be if Ford’s foundation had spent all its money on Ford’s enthusiasms, such as promoting publication of the scurrilous anti-Semitic tract The Learned Protocols of the Elders of Zion?   Third and most important, the  tax-free status of foundations is supposed to encourage philanthropy, not the accumulation of permanently idle tax-free money.

The Nonprofiteer has long argued that the minimum expenditure required of foundations is way too minimum, and that setting up a structure to give away 5% of income shouldn’t entitle a donor to a 100% tax shelter–whatever his/her intent.  Most likely that intent was to escape from taxation, without too much more thought than that.

So let’s think about the issue not from the standpoint of donor intent but from the standpoint of social good.  Which is more useful for a philanthropy: remaining around in perpetuity, to grapple with issues that may arise a generation or three from now, or spending down in the present and relatively short-term future on issues the donor understands and cares about and which in any case are currently urgent?  From the phrasing you can tell the Nonprofiteer’s position: spend it down.

Julius Rosenwald saw the wisdom of this approach when he created a program of fellowships for African-American artists for their professional development.  Rather than keep the fellowships around in perpetuity, he ordered that the principal be awarded completely within 5 years of his death.  As a result, virtually every mid-20th-Century African-American artist you’ve ever heard of received a Rosenwald Fellowship: Ralph Ellison and Romare Beardon and Katherine Dunham and Gordon Parks and many others.   The value of what Rosenwald did, giving artists enough money so they could work without fear or distraction, is literally incalculable.

But also as a result, virtually no one remembers Julius Rosenwald, or at least not his fellowship program.  So that presents the question: are we in the business of fostering greatness, or memorializing it?  Is remembering a donor as important as creating work through a donor’s generosity?  Again, to the Nonprofiteer the answer is self-evident.  She’d rather be grateful for Ralph Ellison than to Julius Rosenwald.

Look, here’s the deal: people will make money in every generation, and in every generation some people will make a lot of money.  If we tax them properly they’ll look for the opportunity to shelter their money in philanthropy.  Why shouldn’t we tax them so that they’re motivated to spend it philanthropically, too?  Like the proverbial Fifth Avenue bus, another chunk of  money will be along any minute.

Sure, there’s a risk of spending too rapidly and with insufficient research (or “due diligence,” as people are fond of saying when they want to pretend that the nonprofit sector is really just like a business).  But the greater risk is the situation in which we find ourselves now, where philanthropies give out amounts insufficient to make any significant change.  No, philanthropy isn’t supposed to be society’s primary source of support, but while people are busy starving government so they can drown it in the bathtub, private wealth can and should step into the breach.

Consider the contributions of the Gates Foundations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Can anyone really argue it would be better to hold back on eradicating those diseases, in case there’s some bigger plague later on?  If there is, as AIDS itself demonstrates, we’ll mobilize and raise money for it.  Meanwhile, in case of every ailment, time is our enemy: the later we provide resources, the harder it will be for those resources to have impact.  Thus wasting money is a less significant risk than failing to spend enough to make a difference.

Two things need to happen: philanthropists themselves need to organize their giving so that it ends within a reasonable time after their death, and Congress needs to modify the tax code to require philanthropies to pay out more each year to retain their tax-favored status.  A 10% annual payout–double the current rate–may end up causing philanthropies to dip into principal, maybe even until they’re empty.  But remember the words of Citizen Kane as he contemplated the financial difficulties of his newspaper empire: ” I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years. ”  Let’s take a Kane-like risk of running out of money.

One more story: Some time in the ’90s Joan Kroc stood up at a Ronald McDonald House benefit to announce her annual gift.  Rumor had it she was actually going to make a five-year pledge, and the Nonprofiteer’s table indulged in the parlor game of trying to figure out just how much that would be.   We figured the previous year’s gift ($5M) plus a little bump (so $6M) for each of 5 years, and settled on $30 million.  And then she rose to speak, a little woman holding a torn-off piece of yellow legal paper in her hand.  And she said, “I was going to make a 5-year gift, but then I thought: ‘The need is now.’  So tonight I’m giving $50 million to Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.”  Everyone at the table fell back in her seat, literally knocked over by her generosity, and also by her insight: The need is now.

Aside from Ronald McDonald, Mrs. Kroc mostly supported causes her late husband disapproved of.  If only he’d given more in the present, he wouldn’t have had to contemplate a future in which his money went to places he despised.  So the donor’s intention and the sector’s need are in sync:

Spend it now.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Why do nonprofits ask for the moon?

March 23, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am a nonprofit professional “in transition” otherwise known as job hunting.  In the course of my job search I have come across two  job postings that have left me incredulous and I was curious as to your opinion.
  1. An executive director position listed for $32K/year. Granted this was described as a half time gig but is there any such thing as a half time ED? Maybe it means you can take weekends off. The job description/requirements were just as detailed as any full time description.
  2. A director of development position for $20-25K.   Again this is listed as 3/4 time. It comes with a very detailed laundry list of expectations but again is this really a job that can be done well with less than full attention?

Something seems really off here. My gut (and review of their 990′s) tells me that these are marginal organizations to be avoided.  Do I seem unrealistically fussy in today’s job market?

Signed, Born At Night But Not Last Night

Dear Born:

You are not unrealistically fussy, especially when “today’s job market” in the nonprofit sector seems to include a number of jobs that are going begging for want of the right candidate.  And you’ve put your finger on why that should be the case: because the job descriptions (and presumably the jobs that accompany them) are a pile of unrealistic expectations held together with the glue of employer entitlement.  This glue is particularly thick in the nonprofit sector, where hiring managers presume that their poverty entitles them to your services for less than they’re worth.  But, as the workplace sign has it, Bad planning on your part doesn’t necessarily constitute an emergency on my part.

And you’ve identified a favorite gambit of those self-entitled managers/agencies: pretending that a full-time job can be done part-time because they know the proposed salary is an insult.  (For what it’s worth, the Nonprofiteer was paid $25K as an Executive Director of a small organization in 1987; if salaries haven’t increased 20% in the past 25 years, they should have!)  As you say, it is virtually impossible for anyone to be a part-time Executive Director, and the length of the list of responsibilities demonstrates that the agency knows this as well as you do.  You could do it simply by specifying the number of hours you’re prepared to work (e.g., 30), but sure as death and taxes would come a grant application deadline which must be met, and your self-imposed part-time-ness (part-time-itude?) would go out the window.

The Nonprofiteer just had occasion to help a client work on a job description for a part-time professional position. The original description had two problems.  First, it specified more than 40 hours’ worth of work for a 20-hour position.  Second, its qualifications included both items that couldn’t be expected from someone willing to work part-time for $20 an hour (such as a roster of contacts in high-profile media) and items that shouldn’t be expected from a professional (such as facility with word processing programs).  If you’re hiring a professional, don’t ask for secretarial skills.  And if you’re hiring a professional, be reasonable about how much professional service you can get for $20 an hour and/or 20 hours per week.

By contrast, another client has recently shifted its budgeting from “How much can we spend based on how much we raised last year?” to “How much do we need to raise to support what we need to do?”  Moreover, one of the things the agency realized it needed to do was steadily increase the salary of the Executive Director so that when the current martyr departs, the group will be in a position to offer a living wage to the next group of candidates.

(Consider, by the way, that the people offering such meager salaries are Board members who probably chafe at being asked to give $1000 a year.  They don’t hesitate, though, to ask you to forego $25,000 or so of income.  This is why the Nonprofiteer doesn’t advocate asking staff members to donate to their agencies: they’re already doing so at a level no other donor is likely to match.)

(Consider also that the sums offered make clear that the agencies are expecting women, and only women, to apply for these jobs.  No one would dare offer such a pittance to a man.  The nonprofit sector operated for years on the unwaged labor of women, but there’s no reason we have to continue to provide this subsidy.)

Thus, your incredulity at the nerve of some agencies is perfectly well-founded.  That won’t help you get a job with them: but hey, why would you want to?  You’re a star, and you’ll find a place that won’t also ask for the moon.*

————–

“Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”–Bette Davis to Paul Henreid, Now Voyager

More on the Buffett challenge

February 3, 2012

When Warren Buffett challenged Mitch McConnell to help him pay down the deficit, McConnell paid him no never-mind—but a teenage girl in Northbrook, IL heard and responded, sending $300 to the Feds and asking Buffett to do the same.  This is an adorable story, and the video makes it more adorable still.

But let’s not let this young woman’s sense of civic duty and remarkable act of civic participation distract from the real point of the Buffett challenge, which is that without increased taxation of the wealthy, jerks like Mitch McConnell will free-ride on public-spirited souls like Katie Murphy.

Give the people at Komen a piece of your mind . . .

February 2, 2012

as they seem to have lost their own.  Komen’s decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood at the behest of an anti-choice Board member reminds us how ready the right wing is to sacrifice women’s health for political gain.

There’s a petition to sign if you want to want to make your voice heard.  If you’ve been a Komen supporter and you now de-fund the organization, your voice will be heard even louder.

The Nonprofiteer has been wondering what to write about . . .

February 1, 2012

but she’d really have preferred not to have this as an inspiration.  There is no excuse for the decision of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, until now a respected source of information and funding in the fight against breast cancer, to defund Planned Parenthood‘s program of providing breast exams to poor women.

In fact, the decision doesn’t even make sense–unless you consider that a recent addition to the Board of Komen is an anti-choice ex-politician from Georgia.  As another commentator has wisely noted, Planned Parenthood will survive this latest injury–the Nonprofiteer’s determination to support the agency has just been redoubled, and probably her gift will be, too–but Komen may not.

Please join the Nonprofiteer in notifying Komen of your distress at its decision to let irrelevant politics endanger the lives and health of poor women, and of your decision to redirect to Planned Parenthood any support you may have been giving to Komen.

The 5 Ws of Individual-Gifts Fundraising

November 1, 2010

As all budding journalists know, every story can be told through judicious use of the 5 Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why?  Here the Nonprofiteer employs this efficient system to tell the story of how reluctant volunteers can become enthusiastic and successful individual-gifts fundraisers.

For most small- and medium-sized organizations, everything about this story is a blank.  So here’s a primer on how to fill in that blank.

WHO to ask?: Only two types of people should be asked individually for gifts: people who’ve given to your group before, and friends of your Board members.  With anyone else, it’s sheer impertinence: “Hi, nice to meet you, open your wallet.”  Ask friends (of the agency and the Board), and ye shall receive.

What to do when your Board members say, “I don’t want to ask my friends for money”?  Reply: “You don’t have to ask your friends.  Just ask each other’s friends!”  So Angela asks John’s friend, and John asks Angela’s.  All they ask of their own friends is to come to a meeting, and all they have to do at that meeting is wax enthusiastic about the group and listen while the other one solicits the gift.

WHAT to ask for?: If they’ve given to the agency before, you’re asking for more.  You have to make the leap of imagination (from $250 last year to $1000 this year) before the prospective donor can think about making it.

Don’t worry about being too ambitious in your monetary goal.  Very few prospective donors are offended by being mistaken for rich people.  (Women, though, are more likely to be taken aback than men, so ask for slightly less from women.  They’re more likely to say ‘yes,’ so it all evens out.)

If you’re asking a Board member’s friend, ask for slightly less than the Board member gives him/herself, because the first thing the prospect will do is turn to his Board friend and say, “What do you give?”  If the Board member doesn’t think the agency’s worth $500, the friend is unlikely to think it’s worth anything.

What if your Board member’s friend is a gazillionaire?  (We should all have this problem.)  Then prime the Board member to say, “I give $200, because that’s what I can afford.  We’re hoping you’ll likewise consider a gift based on your capacity.”  Again, few people mind being suspected of success, so if your Board member is prepared to say, “Listen, I know you made a killing last year when you sold your Google stock . . .”  his friend is unlikely to want to correct him!

WHEN to ask: The Nonprofiteer is a prompt—some might say premature—fundraiser.  As a cautionary tale, she offers the story of how her alma mater took her out for coffee repeatedly to soften her up for an ask, despite her saying, “Guys, I’m a fundraiser.  I know what we’re doing here.  Just ask me for the money!”  By the time they were ready to ask her, she’d been reminded that the school’s investment philosophy would have permitted owning shares in slave-ships, and did permit investing in companies propping up genocidal regimes; and therefore she declined to give, though she wouldn’t have reneged on a preexisting pledge.  So don’t delay; get the yes!

“What about cultivation?” you ask.  The Nonprofiteer believes that lots of what passes for “cultivation” in individual-gifts fundraising is nothing more than stalling.  Don’t hold “cultivation” events and plan to ask for money later; if you hold an event, either get contributions through the ticket price or ask forcefully that night.

All you need to do to “cultivate”  people is to demonstrate that you’re thinking about them on a regular basis, and you can do that by forwarding something you think they’d like to read.  Better yet, send them invitations to your activities, whether performances or client graduations or river cleanups.  People give where they feel they belong, so be on the lookout for “belonging” opportunities.  For this purpose, the less special the event, the better.    If you do something special for a donor, make it an ask.

One word of caution about WHEN: don’t ask too soon after the last gift.  May and June may be two separate fiscal years to you, but your donors probably think (and give) on a calendar-year basis.  So they’ll think you bizarre and ungrateful if you respond to their May gift with a June ask.

WHERE?: Over breakfast, lunch or dinner (or possibly bedtime snack).  The Nonprofiteer is a firm believer in the power of food to facilitate fundraising.  In any case, the advantage of a meal is that it requires the prospective donor to sit still for about an hour, during which time you can a) learn about her; b) educate her; and c) ask her.

WHY?: Why bother with individual gifts?  Why not just write some more grants?  (asks your Board.)  Three reasons:

  • Because grants come and go.  Institutional funders have the attention span of fruit-flies: this year they’re interested in AIDS but next year it will be architecture.  If you’re not the fad, you’re out of luck.
  • Because even if they continue to embrace your work, very few foundations or corporate giving offices will give money to support your operations.  They want to support programs, the newer the better, often leading agencies to elaborate their programming beyond what their infrastructure can sustain.  If you need to pay your light bill—or your employees—you need individual gifts.
  • And finally, even if they love you to pieces, most institutional funders want to sustain you while you find broader support.  They’re not interested in being your permanent sugar daddy.

By contrast, most individuals give because they’re asked, and what they’re asked for is support for a cause or an agency (not a single program), and once they’ve agreed they keep giving out of habit.  So you have to actively offend them before they stop.

So that’s the story of successful individual giving.  And if who-what-when-where-why merely piques your interest, you can learn how right here.

Whether women are more generous than men, and whether it matters

October 26, 2010

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy has just released a study showing that at all income levels women give more than men—both more frequently and more generously when controlled for income.

This study’s headline is that across nearly all income levels women 1) are more likely to give and 2) on average give more than men.

Specifically, women who make $23,509 or less (Q1) are 28% more likely to give than men; women who make $23,509 – $43,500 (Q2) are 32% more likely to give; women who make $43,5000 – $67,532 (Q3) are 49% more likely to give than men; women who make $67,532 – $103,000 (Q4) are 43% more likely to give than men; and women who make +$103,000 (Q5) are 26% more likely to give than men.

In every income group except for Q2, women give more than men. In Q1, women give 92% more (or almost twice as much) than men; in Q3, women give 95% more (or almost twice as much) than men; in Q4, women give almost 45% more (or almost one and a half times more) than men; and in Q5, women give 94% more (or almost twice as much) than men.

The study’s authors resist the temptation to make bold claims about why this is the case, though they note that generosity tends to increase with education and that women now earn more than half of all bachelor’s degrees.  Generosity also increases with income, and more women are employed now, and therefore earning their own income, than ever before.  But even controlling for income, education and wealth, in what principal investigator Debra Mesch calls “pure terms,” women are the more generous half of the population.

[Digression: Women now make 80 cents for each male dollar.  This represents an increase from 62 cents in 1979, at which rate we'll achieve wage parity in 2043.  Only the most ridiculously strident feminists regard this as a problem.]

What’s the source of women’s greater generosity?  When prompted, Mesch is willing to indulge in a bit of speculation:

Women are socialized to take care of their families and their communities, and because of that socialization process we see the motives of empathy and caring.  We’ve done another study that looks at difference in motives for giving, and women score much higher on empathy and principle of care.

Her new study’s results comport with the trend to focus international aid on women because they’re more likely than men to spend surplus income on their families instead of themselves.  Mesch is unsurprised: “I think that’s an international phenomenon, that women are the caregivers and nurturers; they have more of those prosocial behaviors.”

So what difference does any of this make, except the sheer giggle value of demonstrating female superiority to the male of the species?  Mesch is the Queen of Tact on the subject:

I think what we need to understand is that one is not better than the other,  just different.  Women give for different reasons, give differently, are much more egalitarian in their approach.  As girls, we’re taught to be nice and share.  Men have been taught to be much more competitive, and to communicate status.  Men are strategic and women want to be equalizers.

[Oh, right, of course: no one's better, we're just different.  But the Nonprofiteer defies anyone to offer an example of how "less generous" can be better than, or even equal to, "more generous."]

If we’re lucky, the study will help eliminate the prejudice afflicting most professional fundraisers: that women are timid askers and chintzy givers who never donate without asking someone’s permission.  Not only will cultivating a female donor be more likely to yield a “yes” than comparable effort spent on a man, but women’s giving will increase faster than men’s relative to their economic power.  You’re betting on a stock that’s going up.

But you can’t treat your female donors like men in drag.  As Mesch notes,
If you’re a fundraiser, you have to communicate with women in a different way than with men.  You need to involve and engage them, because if you feel involved as a woman, you contribute not only your money but your time.

Thus the study suggests a lot more than it claims: that today’s efforts to find meaningful work for female volunteers will produce tomorrow’s major gifts.  That achieving equal pay is essential not just to women but to the charities we support (so, a little help here, guys?).  That female-headed households can be a resource to be tapped and not just a problem to be solved.  That the future of philanthropy rests in women’s hands.

What makes this more than a parlor game is the extent to which it reveals the role of empathy in giving.  Just as poor people give a greater proportion of their income to charity than rich people—presumably because they know how it feels to be on the needing side of the give-and-need equation—so women may give more generously because we know what it’s like to be dependent.  Women are less likely to imagine that having been born on third base means we hit a triple; and the feminist mantra that every woman is one divorce away from welfare makes most of us acutely aware that there but for the grace of God go I.

Part II of the study, scheduled to be released in December or January, will address gender differences in the kind of charities supported: secular or religious?  Large or small?  Do women’s gifts go to operating expenses, while men’s go to bricks and mortar on which they can carve their names?  Says Mesch,

What I can tell you is from the previous research, men and women do give to different causes.  We find women seem to give more to the social service areas, to helping the needy.  Plus women seem to spread their giving out [among multiple charities] and men are much more strategic.

The results of her research leave Mesch hopeful.

My ideal wish is that at some point, we won’t have a need to study women’s philanthropy.  It would be wonderful if philanthropy is just philanthropy, and we understand that women have caught up in terms of their income and education and wealth.

We can really change the world––women are at the tipping point.  It’s going to be a huge movement where women can really see themselves as making an impact and being philanthropists.

An appraising stare down the gift horse’s gullet

August 31, 2010

Jane Mayer’s excellent piece in this past week’s New Yorker about the brothers Koch, oil billionaires who’ve donated hundreds of millions to nonprofits promoting right-wing causes, finally clarified for the Nonprofiteer her unease at Bill Gates’s campaign to persuade billionaires to donate half their estates to charity.  It’s not a question of who has or hasn’t taken the pledge, though that’s an entertaining parlor game.  Nor is it the fact that the generosity of extremely wealthy people may not be what the rest of us have in mind when we hear the word “charity.”  (The Kochs’ “charity,” for instance, is a term of art encompassing donations to all kinds of institutions, predominantly think-tanks churning out rationales for the economic interests of wealthy people and front groups to make it appear that defending those economic interests is the political will of the non-wealthy majority.)

What’s troubling about the billionaires’ pledge remains so even when the receiving causes are unexceptionable.  Gates, for instance, has very generously underwritten substantial efforts by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  Good for him, and for the world.

But.

Even the best-intentioned best-directed private donations are a way for moneyed people to work their will on the public, while the rest of us have nothing but the vote.  And when the level of contributions is discussed in fractions of $1B, it’s no longer charity within a democracy: it’s benevolent dictatorship.

Maybe our country should be giving less to treat AIDS et al and more to eradicate infant and maternal mortality through the UN Population Fund; maybe not.  That’s a decision to be made by the people of the United States, through our government.  It’s really not a decision for a single person.

Why not?  Well, for starters, the “single person” in question is a billionaire, and thus always a man.  That means almost by definition that the highest levels of charitable giving will overlook women, though we constitute more than a majority of the population.  And if that’s the case—if society’s needs are met by individual whim instead of collective decisions about the greatest good for the greatest number—then what, actually, is left of self-government?

Of course, billionaires have plenty of assistance in the task of allowing economic power to trump political will.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, holding that corporations are “persons” with First Amendment rights violated by limits on their campaign spending, already put the nation quite a way down that road.  But somehow it’s worse when something that sounds so benign—”half my estate to charity, because I’ve been so fortunate”—actually translates as “I set the agenda for the future of this country, because I’ve been so fortunate.”

What we really want from billionaires is for them to pay a lot more in income taxes: say, the 87% of taxable income paid in 1954,  or even the 70% paid at the start of the 1980s.  And then we as a group can decide where our group’s money goes.  All contribute, all decide.

And what we really want from billionaires’ heirs is for them to pay the 77% estate tax rate in effect in 1941, or even the 70% estate tax rate in effect in 1976.   (And let’s not hear any nonsense about “death taxes.”  The dead aren’t the ones paying.)  Why shouldn’t people who get money by inheritance have to pay taxes on it, just like people who get it by working?

Merely to ask that question is to answer it: no democratic society decides that people who don’t work should be privileged over those who do.  Societies like that are called “aristocracies,” and all those so-called Constitutional Originalists running around hijacking elections by screaming about excessive taxation should take a moment to remember that our Constitution was designed precisely to interfere with the establishment of a government by inheritance.

The Constitution prohibits not once but twice the granting of any title of nobility; but the Framers didn’t rest there.  They fought to cripple and ultimately abolish entail and primogeniture, the primary devices by which English law kept family fortunes together.  Why?  Because they realized that, if you’re founding a republic, it’s really not a good idea to let money keep piling up generation after generation in the same few pairs of hands.

Self-governing societies can’t operate on noblesse oblige, and societies that do aren’t truly self-governing.  As Dr. Franklin said, “A republic—if you can keep it.”

In Our Prime

July 22, 2010

Editor (and fellow nonprofit consultant) Nancy Worssam and I will be reading from our essay anthology In Our Prime, by and about women 50 and over, next Thursday evening, July 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Women and Children First bookstore, 5233 N. Clark Street in Chicago.  I hope some of you can join us that evening.

And please listen that morning—it’s only a week from today!—to Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, when 848 host Alison Cuddy interviews Nancy and me about the inspirations for and origins of the book.


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