The Seattle Times has just carried off this year’s Pollyanna in Hell trophy, awarded by the Nonprofiteer to whomever manages to be the most grateful for the least reason. (In this cartoon by the great Roz Chast, Pollyanna finds reasons to praise her consignment to the damned depths: "Looks like a good place to hike!" "Bet I’ll meet some interesting people!" And, as the flames leap behind her, "No more down jackets, forever!") The paper reports with breathless pride and enthusiasm that Seattle, now the home of a large number of foundations, has a new economic engine: philanthropy! How thrilling to the city’s denizens to stand so close to such a vibrant industry! And think of the job prospects!
So maybe some of the philanthropies don’t actually improve anything through their grantmaking. Maybe the Gates Foundation’s left (donating) hand doesn’t know what its right (investing) hand is doing (or maybe the problem is that the left hand, newly awash in Warren Buffett’s cash, doesn’t even know what the left hand is doing). Maybe all these New Economy gazillionaires have such grandiose ideas about their ability to transform the world that the boring task of succoring local charities and the ordinary people they serve gets rather overlooked. Still: they’re there, aren’t they? Just a local telephone call away is all that money, honoring and sanctifying us and improving our lives by its mere presence. After all, hasn’t the Ford Foundation–incorporated right there in Michigan!–been the saving of Detroit?
The Times’ misguided enthusiasm is the logical conclusion both of the cockeyed civic pride that led the Chicago Tribune to boast about its city’s hyperactive use of a Website for impoverished public schools (see "Talking from the Other Side of My Mouth," here) and of the bizarre economic-impact calculus by which anything that pays wages and consumes time must be a wondrous boon to society (see "Proving Too Much," here). By this means (or any other means necessary), we avoid assessing what foundations actually do. Instead, we simply bathe them in gratitude for their very existence.
No more down jackets, forever!