Our Funders Ourselves

It turns out giving away money is like marathon running: while you’re standing on the sidelines you wonder why those people have such awkward gaits, and then you get out there and realize you’re lucky to be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When I inherited some money a few years ago, I discovered how difficult it was to follow the advice I’d been blithely giving other people.  Despite years of raging that the foundation giving minimum should be 10% instead of 5%, I hesitated at the prospect of giving away a full tenth of what had just landed in my lap.  What if it didn’t last forever?  Yet I’d jeered at foundations’ determination above all things to make their money last, when the need is now.  Okay: then walk your talk.

Likewise, I’d ridiculed philanthropies that didn’t seem to know what to do with all that money: lemme at it!  But here I was at long last with a chance to act on my knowledge of the nonprofit world and make significant gifts, and I froze.  Was it best to concentrate the funds, like the Steans Family Foundation doing all its giving in a single neighborhood?  But that meant neglecting charities I’d been supporting for years, in areas that were important to me, too.  Who should be elevated and who left behind?  I ended up simply magnifying previous gifts, keeping the recipients and the proportions the same.  The only difference was that in asking "Is this the way to have the most impact?", I’d paused longer before writing the check–and those pauses are just what I’ve always said they were, a way for prosperous people to delay parting with their money. 

It makes sense to ask whether a gift is a good way to achieve the ends we seek.  It doesn’t make sense to ask whether it’s the best way.  I would argue that grandiosity–the determination to solve poverty or end disease–is the main impediment to charity.  Whatever Gates and Buffett are able to do, my gifts are not going to change the world.  And asking for that kind of return on charitable investment is what’s led us into the current situation where operating nonprofits spend more time documenting their outcomes than achieving them. 

Politics is for making social change: we elect people, and they work for us, and we hold them accountable for what they do or don’t do.  Charity is for relieving suffering and creating beauty to the extent possible, or more precisely for enabling professionals to relieve suffering and create beauty.  A giver’s job is to exercise generosity to the extent her resources will permit–and then get out of the way.  If we don’t like what recipients are doing with our money, we should give it elsewhere, or join their Boards of Directors and help them use it more wisely.  But let’s keep a little humility about what we, and our money, can accomplish and what hoops other people have to jump through to get it.



2 Responses to “Our Funders Ourselves”

  1. Fred Friedman Says:


    I am very impressed. I wish you well with this blog.

    However…. I do not agree with you.

    As someone who is trying to start a non-profit, in particular, a 501(c)3 that seeks to empower homeless people and mentally ill people, in other words create fundamental change, I do not believe that charity is only for relieving suffering or creating beauty. It is also for creating change. Politics, in the sense of electing officials is only one way to promote change.

    Now that I have wrote this I realize that I agree with almost all that you wrote and only disagree with one sentence that probably was not the most important sentence to you.

  2. Jerry Case Says:

    I too believe as the last poster stated that charities can affect social change. They can act to prime the pump. To attack a problem that is out there long enough and with a modicum of success that what they are doing gets noticed. And recognizing a problem and the potential solution by a wider audience is half the battle in making any significant change. But I also agree with the Nonprofiteer that once you hand over your gift…well it was just that, a gift and what the recipient does with it is their business.

    But I believe that these arguments are not really the points that the Nonprofiteer is trying to make. The point is that choosing who you give support to is not easy. There has to be an emotional fit (at least for me) between organization and donor for the transaction to work. Unfortunately, all the direct mail pieces and telephone campaigns don’t do much in way of fostering that feeling of ‘fit’ and interviewing charities is not something the average donor is going to do. So what is the answer? How can that ‘fit’ be fostered in a more efficient manner?

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