It’s Humbug Season Again

Ah, there’s something about Christmas: a time to be with family and friends, a time to think of others, a time to make merry and, of course, a time for dusting off old prejudices. On that last point, Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), is playing Scrooge with two articles in the Huffington Post attacking the Buffett-Gates Giving Pledge.

Mr Dorfman’s first objection is that ‘the amounts being given are actually quite small’, on the basis that a lot of the money will go into endowments for foundations rather than being spent today. This, he says, means that the benefit will ‘trickle’ out over many years rather than helping to fill the giving hole left by the economic downturn. Well, maybe. As Dorfman himself admits, Buffett for one is keen to spend faster than the minimum 5% required by law in the United States, reflecting the interest of many philanthrocapitalists in ‘spending out’ while they are still alive rather than creating a perpetual endowment. Hardly a devastating critique.

Next up is a grumble that too much philanthropy is going to universities or the arts, and too little to ‘under-served communities’. This is a re-hash of a 2009 study that the NCRP did to show that foundations don’t favour the same causes as… the NCRP! It is certainly debatable whether Mr Dorfman and his colleagues have a monopoly on the truth (especially since you might quibble with their methodology about what qualifies as ‘under-served communities’) and there is also a danger in extrapolating from current foundation giving trends to how the Giving Pledgers will behave. An issue to watch, perhaps, but not really a criticism of the pledge itself, surely?

Finally, there’s the danger of giving billionaires too much power over how their money is used. And what is the evidence that donors have too much power? Because they should give more money to the causes that Mr Dorfman supports. See above…

Actually, there’s a lot in what Mr Dorfman says that we agree with – the need for more and better giving, a call for foundations to be more forward-thinking about how to use their foundations’ endowments to do good, and so on. But none of this has anything to do with the Giving Pledge, which is supposed to be the focus of his critique. You have to wonder why, if Mr Dorfman has nothing negative specifically to say about the actual Giving Pledge, he says anything at all.

Christmas traditions are all well and good, but Mr Dorfman makes such an unconvincing Scrooge that maybe he should leave this job to someone else next year.

0 replies on “It’s Humbug Season Again”

Thanks for joining the conversation! I just returned to the office after visiting family over the holidays and want to respond to some of the issues you raise.

Most importantly, I think you missed that I wasn’t attempting to criticize the pledge itself. In fact, I went out of my way to say I think it’s a good thing. But I do think the HYPE surrounding the pledge has been completely overblown. It’s not going to be as much money as people think, it’s not going to do a lot to help the poor, and the donors don’t usually give in ways that get the best results. Do you think the hype is truly justified? If so, I’d love to hear why.

I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that there is “a danger in extrapolating from current foundation giving trends to how the Giving Pledgers will behave.” You were right to question my assumption in this regard. I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that Pledgers don’t end up following current trends. Indeed, that was part of the reason I wrote the commentary. I was trying to encourage Pledgers to follow the lead of those among them who already have shown leadership in bucking those trends.

I don’t have any grand delusions that Pledgers will be looking to me for advice, but perhaps we can all help nudge their giving in better directions.

One person’s hype is another person’s consciousness-raising. The publicity attendant to major pledges and gifts by billionaires might encourage others with similar capacity to join the movement. Rather than celebrating an era of conspicuous consumption, it benefits our community to call attention to the spirit and benefits of philanthropy. One might also hope that highly successful entrepreneurs engaging in dialog with experts in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors might lead to innovative giving and problem solving. This is an opportunity for various causes to make the case for support – which has in fact helped nonprofits to increase, articulate, and demonstrate the value of their programs. Let’s hope that all of us can pledge to increase our support for the important work of the nonprofit sector.

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