Losing Our Powers
Listen to “Losing Our Powers” by Fred Smith
In a recent New York Times article, “When a $1,000 Gift is Better Than $1 Million” Paul Sullivan writes about Donna and Benjamin Rosen who were once in the “big leagues” of philanthropy giving away tens of millions of dollars. But, as Ben Rosen puts it, “I gave away too much, too soon, and lived too long. Our days of philanthropy are gone. We’re not making multimillion-dollar donations anymore. But there’s still a lot of room for philanthropy.”
We read about foundations deciding to voluntarily “sunset” after a defined number of years but what about those who give away too much too soon and outlive their capacity for big league generosity? I have been talking with families and executives about the growing number of private foundations fixing the date when they will stop giving and then distribute the remaining assets. Of course, the primary reason is the concern about the mission and values of the foundation shifting away over time from the original intent of the donor. For others, they are concerned about the negative effects of creating a dynasty mentality. What interests me about the Rosens is they had no plans to stop. They simply ran out of money and, as my good friend Bob Buford once told me, “The fun stops when the money runs out.” Or, does it? Maybe the fun simply finds another way. That is exactly what happened with the Rosens. They became creative with small grants: a few thousand dollars or less. Here is what they discovered.
“It’s a completely different world,” Mr. Rosen said, “But from the recipient viewpoint, the grants are so appreciated and do so much good. We get handwritten letters saying that your several thousand dollar gift helps them, which is so different from big philanthropy where your million-dollar gifts get you a letter saying, “Could you add an extra zero to that?”
When we closed our local foundation I was completely prepared for a sudden and permanent reduction in the calls and requests from non-profits for meetings. I think it is unrealistic and naive for donors to expect otherwise. Yes, there are times when people will call and say, “I’d like to pick your brain,” but they are often those who have yet to hear we are no longer making grants. So, while that was no surprise there was one part of the closing that did take time to understand. It was my painful inability to make things happen. My capacity to have an impact had been reduced dramatically. It was not my ego that had been affected (well, maybe a little) but my desire to see things move and change. Scholars like Paul Schervish call this a sense of agency. With large amounts of money, you have the option to cause change or disruption in a hundred different ways. You have a special kind of power not possessed by others. The best way of describing the loss is the influence of kryptonite on Superman. There were at least five distinct varieties of kryptonite – each with a different result. While green kryptonite is the one most often associated with the enemies of Superman, there was one that had a very special and humiliating effect. It was gold kryptonite. While not fatal, it reduced Superman to a normal human with no superpowers at all. No leaping over tall buildings at a single bound. No stopping a speeding bullet. No big league philanthropy. That is exactly how it can feel when you are accustomed to doing “superhuman” things. It’s not the loss of the money but the loss of the power and agency.
That is why the example of the Rosens is so inspiring to me and many others. “The vast majority of charitable gifts – some $286 billion, out of $410 billion given last year – come from individual donations, according to Giving USA, the annual report on philanthropy in the United States. Foundations, like the ones run by Mr. Gates and Mr. Bloomberg, account for $67 billion of gifts made.”
It is not quite the same but I do think about the boy with the loaves and fishes. He had no idea what the impact of his offer would be. Jesus could have catered the whole meal himself. He could have asked one of his wealthier followers to pick up the tab. But he did something miraculous with a small gift. He turned the tables on the big leagues and those of us who want to be as certain as possible our gifts have a large impact and move the needle. However, for the boy, it was not the size of the gift or the expectation of solving a big problem but the faith and trust in which it was given. It was, in the best way possible, superhuman.