Thursday, December 27, 2012

For this "most charitable time of the year ..."

Exuberant art deco mural in City Hall, Buffalo, NY

If you've ever had to raise money from rich people for a cause you cared about, you will love Reuters financial columnist Felix Salmon's article: Philanthropy: You’re doing it wrong. He's obviously not currently having to work the begging circuit, so he tells it like it is.

… since I’m personally feeling very charitable right now, I’ve decided to do you all the favor of telling you that when it comes to philanthropy, you’re doing it wrong.

Interestingly, philanthropy is one of those areas where the richer you are, the more likely you are to be doing it spectacularly wrong. So to make you feel better still, this is aimed mainly at the mega-philanthropists: the people who give away millions of dollars and feel fantastic for doing so. …

… Let’s run down the list of things you’re likely to be doing wrong, if you’re a rich philanthropist:

  • You meddle in the internal workings of the charities you donate to, even though you’re not on the board. …
  • You set up your own foundation. …
  • You fund architecture. …
  • You encourage mission creep. …
  • You kid yourself that your mere presence on the board, or your “celebrity endorsement”, is valuable. …
  • You’re a tease.
  • You think that going to to charity balls constitutes charitable activity. …
  • ...have some humility. Here’s one idea: for every dollar you spend on overhead and payroll at your foundation, make sure that you donate a dollar earmarked for overhead and payroll somewhere else. Those are the funds which are always the hardest to raise, after all. …
  • …Finally, there’s something that all of us can do, whether we’re dynastically rich or really rather poor: volunteering. But weirdly, volunteering is harder for the rich, who can more easily afford the time commitment: they often think that time spent volunteering is wasted.…The problem with this logic is that it ignores the enormous value to the volunteer of volunteering

When I work on political campaigns, I often find myself telling the unfortunate folks trying to raise the money that political donors are different people than charitable donors. (I'm usually fortunate mostly to be tasked with the spending, not the begging, though I try to do my part.) They are not entirely different, but the political giving impetus works slightly differently. Political donors are more straightforward about their ambition to change how the world works. There's more ostensible emphasis on efficacy; a little less about massaging their self-esteem. But most of Salmon's items have campaign analogues:
  • Donors are tempted to think they are strategic political geniuses -- but in fact they are less likely than the average person to have a finger on the pulse of what matters to ordinary voters. The lives of the rich are different.
  • Setting up a campaign committee and planning a campaign requires some legal and experiential professionalism; the donors need to trust the people who do this work, not think they can replace them. Yes, democracy is a participatory enterprise, even for the rich, but there are rules to know and skills to acquire that no one is born with.
  • Don't judge a campaign by whether it has a fancy office. Some of the more effective campaigns I've seen have been run out of dingy holes in the wall; the campaign needs computers and printing facilities, it doesn't need nice furniture.
  • Endorsements are necessary to campaigns to signal who is lining up behind them; however even genuinely respected political figures can rarely directly shift votes. And celebrities add almost nothing to campaign's success. Sorry -- politics just doesn't work that way.
  • If you decide to contribute, don't dole out the funds over time. Throw down. Early money makes for winners. Money in the last month is much less useful to the campaign and much less likely to make a difference.
  • Political fundraising events are the analogue of charity balls: necessary evils that by themselves do nothing to win votes. Give the money and ask your friends to chip in; skip the expensive party.
  • Do volunteer on the campaign. Active participation in the democratic process offers an opportunity to meet your fellow citizens without filters. It's educational.
As Salmon says, in politics as in philanthropy,

… there’s no good reason why you should be part of the problem.

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