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Guest column – Philanthropy should return to its roots

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By David M. Zemel

There are donors who give primarily because it gets their name in print, stone or bronze.

I suspect that grantseekers are partially to blame.

We raised this crop of donors by “selling” naming rights and pandering to wealth earned in real estate, banking, communications, manufacturing or some dot.com.

We convinced our donors and ourselves that success in business, and sometimes marriage and childhood, imbues the donor with the expertise to run an entirely different sort of endeavor, even after Michael Jordan proved that great basketball stars make mediocre baseball players.

We even think “cause-related marketing” is a form of philanthropy.

Donors are just following our lead.

It is easier to solicit a gift with a cocktail party, award or honorary degree than it is to educate a busy person about needs with which they are unfamiliar. Unfortunately, that relegates our industry to the society rather than the news pages and fuels the vanity problem Todd Cohen has rightly highlighted [Charities must overcome vanity, 4/22/03].

There is a poster hanging in my office to remind me of what philanthropy is sup­posed to be. It was a gift celebrating the opening the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.

Quoting Robert L. Payton, it says, “Philanthropy is the duty of how we should behave when things go wrong for people, and how we can help to make things bet­ter for everyone – voluntarily, without being required to do it by the government, and for others, without private gain for ourselves.”

It is as good a description of philanthropy as you will find outside of reading the “Ladder of Charity” written by Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher.

I attended a large retirement party for a colleague who, after nearly 20 years of service, retired as president and active board member of a prominent family foundation.

I had met this man several times and he was always generous with his time and advice. It was not until his retirement, however, that I was fully aware of just how good a philanthropist he had been.

During his introduction, the master of ceremonies recounted that a dozen times during his term as foundation president, this man was tapped to receive some award from a significant institution or civic group.

Each time he declined the honor. He claimed that any con­tribution he might have made in that community was due to his family foundation, the board and the talented professional staff.

If the sponsoring organization wanted to honor their contribution as opposed to someone merely fortunate enough to be their CEO, he could arrange to have a representative attend the event.

The man and his foundation have style.

My suggestions?

Complaining about self-aggrandizement is wasted breath. We need to return to the values that underlie real philanthropy.

We need to base more of our grantseeking and grantmaking on the Judeo-Christian values that underlie our need and obligation to help one another – as Dr. Payton suggests and along the lines that Maimonides prescribes.

It’s not about me; it’s about us.


David M. Zemel is senior program officer for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in Tulsa, Okla.

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