Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The best argument against the estate tax ever

Ted Frank at Overlawyered (via Clicked), talking about how much Batman/Bruce Wayne would get sued for his exploits in the movie Batman Begins, contends:
Separately, Wayne's escapades would never have been possible in the first place if there had been an estate tax: otherwise, his wealth would've been dissipated by the government by two successive taxations on the Wayne Estate, one when his parents died, the other when Alfred declared him dead and inherited Bruce's assets.
When you tax the rich, their sons can't afford the appropriate lairs, vehicles, and gadgetry to effectively dispense vigilante justice. Is that the kind of America you want to live in?

Save the estate tax!

Save the Estate Tax

From OMB Watch:
Join our conference call Wednesday at 2:00 EST and learn how you can help stop President Bush and the Republicans in Congress from doing what they do best: acting in the interests of the wealthiest in our society.

The estate tax is the most progressive part of the tax code, and it is under seige. Repealing it will save a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals billions of dollars, while making the rest of us pay more. The effort to repeal the estate tax is one of the most egregious examples of taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

We need your help in order to combat the plethora of cash currently being spent by pro-repealers. Join us to find out how you can help fight back to preserve this important and progressive tax.

Details are below - Please RSVP to if you plan on joining:

What: Blogger Conference Call on Estate Tax
When: Wednesday, August 31, from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST
Where: By Phone (Dial-in at 1.800.820.4690; passcode: 2022348494)

Moderated by:
Adam Hughes, Budget Policy Analyst, OMB Watch

Policy Experts:
John Irons, Director of Budget and Tax Policy, Center for American Progress
Joel Friedman, Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Jane King at The Giving Blog points people to an organization called CharityFocus.

According to the website:
CharityFocus has no paid staff members. A common downfall of nonprofit organizations is that their pure intentions are often overshadowed by the challenges for survival. What begins as a way to serve others, very easily becomes a self-propagating system that aims to stay alive at all costs. Noticing that trend, CharityFocus took another route -- keep the organization fully volunteer-run. No money to raise, no vested interests, no hidden agendas, no image to uphold. So long as volunteers give, the organization will continue to thrive.

It's gloriously utopian:
CharityFocus has no leaders, no followers; its strength comes from its emptiness and its beauty resides in the hearts of its volunteers.

Take a look at their programs. Amazing. I'd tell you to donate, but I don't think they want your money.

Hurricane Katrina

I haven't said anything about Hurricane Katrina because there's really nothing to say when these things happen.

FEMA has information on how you can help.

As for me, I donated to the Red Cross.

Please do what you can for those in need.

Once you've done that, come back and read the rest of this.

First, if you're one of my conservative readers who just puts up with my left-leaning ways, and you're a fan of G.W. Bush, scroll to the next paragraph. Nothing to see here. This just burns me. And so does this. And this. Now you could argue that Think Progress is exploiting the tragedy for to score political points with these posts. I'd reply that it takes one to know one. The fact is, at times like these, we need funds and we need leaders. And I have learned where to begin looking for those things - and where not to. [UPDATE (5:25 PM): I'll give Bush some credit. He's cancelling his vacation, which is great. So why do I find myself recalling this?]

Foundation boards and staff, please take a moment to review your emergency grantmaking policies. If you don't have one, get one. I know you've got an endowment to manage and program areas that deserve your continuous support, but there's no reason that your foundation can't give a little in the event of some calamity. Many certainly do, and that relief is incredible. The Council has some resources on disaster grantmaking created in the wake of 9/11 that can help you with your discussion. Just make disaster relief a part of your foundation's machinery so that when disaster strikes, the funds to rebuild are there.

Philanthropists as a group should also prepare for these things. If your program area is scientific research, the more we know about how hurricanes form and behave, the more prepared we can be for them. Also, every region has its natural disasters - earthquakes in California, hurricanes in the southeast, tornadoes in the plains - is there any way that funds can be set up in a given region as a sort of philanthropic insurance in the event of these disasters? Foundations could contribute to a separate regional fund or to a set of donor-advised funds at community foundations in the area so that funds would be available for use in the event of a disaster. I know, I know, it's called FEMA. It's called the Red Cross. But, seriously, do such funds exist? If not, would they be a good idea? Philanthropy as social insurance - it might be worth some thought.

Finally, philanthropists ought to be concerned with rising levels of poverty in our country. Natural disasters disproportionately affect the poor. Your important work in matters of social and economic justice matters, especially at times like these.

For now, though, don't think. Give.

Telling Stories

While I'm in the mood on donor intent, The Chronicle of Philanthropy has a story on storytelling in family foundations.

Now I’ve never heard of anyone who said, "Talking to your kids about your philanthropy is a really bad idea. Talking about your values with your children is just plain despicable. And telling stories! God, that’s just...criminal."
Nonetheless, I started reading Darlene Siska's piece with tremendous skepticism. I read the slug, "Foundation leaders spin tales from their families' lives as a way to share values and traditions," and, instantly, I was off --

Storytelling? You mean indoctrination. What’s the point of storytelling if it props up the dated views of a backward donor? Storytelling is great in and of itself; it’s just that when people say "storytelling," especially in family foundations, they don’t mean "sharing" stories. They mean older generation gets to tell the younger generation a story, so that the littluns lern they place. When did we start assuming only one generation has a story worth telling? If your stories are going to keep the next generation from telling its own, then sucks to your storytelling. Families might want to ask: why do I want to tell this story? to share my experience? or to duplicate it? to enlighten? or to indoctrinate? Families should be encouraged to tell their stories — as long as they understand that their story isn’t the whole story. As for me, stories? I don't need no stinking stories.

Yes, I've been sitting on those issues for a while... I might want talk to somebody about that. But the article seems impervious to my skepticism: most storytelling is simply not that didactic; most story-tellers, simply not that vicious.

If anything, storytelling can save us from the philanthropy-speak that too often bogs us down in meaningless buzzwords. William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund trustee William C. Graustein argues later in the article:
Story works at a very different level than analytical thinking...We're schooled to think analytically, but story communicates at a level that is much more powerful at building things like trust and imagination.
Narrative short-circuits the philanthropy-speak we frequently fall back on, breathing new life into our discussions. Just when thought you could get away with dismissing a grantee, with a wave of your "we're looking for a more collaborative, scalable approach" wand, they tell you what the grant would mean for the people they serve. Just when you thought you could dismiss your cousin Percy's latest program idea, he tells you how much Grandpa cared about that sort of thing. Suddenly, the people behind the buzzwords appear. It was easier, you think, when they were just buzzwords, but it makes for better philanthropy.

Stories? I think we could use some good stories.

Against donor intent

Phil Anthropoid's reflection on an op-ed in Forbes has me thinking about donor intent, and I suppose it's as good a time as any to declare my instinctive hostility toward it.

This isn't to say that I don't think the views of those who have gone before us shouldn't factor into our decisions. G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "Tradition is the democracy of the dead," and I believe that - our forebears should get a vote. I also believe, though, what Mordecai Kaplan said, "The past has a vote not a veto." So I guess I'm not against donor intent so much as the privileged status of the donor. The donor's views shouldn't count for any more than ours simply because they're the donor's views.

Frequently, the appeal to donor intent is a sham. Say I want my family foundation to venture into a particular program, but my cousin, Percy, prefers things to stay as they are and have been for a long time. Percy might appeal to the values and vision of our venerable grandfather who established the foundation. My dear cousin, however, couldn't care less about Grandpa's values and vision except in this particular case where it serves his purposes. It's me vs. Percy right now, but if my cousin can swing it, it'll be me vs. the grandfather without whose wisdom we wouldn't even be having this argument. Suddenly, I'm arguing uphill. Instead of deciding between the alternatives before us and arguing the case on its merits, we often wrap ourselves in tradition and deliberately confuse the issue.

If we had any respect for so-called donor intent, we'd see a great deal fewer people appealing to it. Think about it this way: imagine Percy could actually resurrect my grandfather, bodily with all his opinions, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears. Instead of Grandpa-the-argument, which is all donor intent makes him, we'd actually have Grandpa-the-person back. My cousin and I are arguing, and he says, "We'll settle this the old-fashioned way - VOODOO!"

You have your board meetings; we have ours, okay?

So my grandfather appears. Naturally, my cousin resurrects him thinking that my grandfather will agree with him, but what if he doesn't?

"Sorry, but I think Madmunk's right on this one. Grandson, what kind of a name is Madmunk?"

Or, more likely, what about the next issue? Maybe, when the discussion moves on, my cousin would very much like my grandfather to go back to being dead. Grandpa was all for Percy on Issue #1, but on Issue #2, he's sided with me.

"Sorry, but I think Madmunk's right on this one."

"What are you talking about?

"I think maybe Madmunk's got a point."

"I think maybe you should go."

"No, I think I'll stay. Grandson, what kind of a name is Percy?"

My cousin doesn't want my grandfather around anymore, but he's opened Grandpa's Box and there's nothing to be done now. In fact, I think he might come around to my point of view after enduring a stern lecture from Grandpa:

"Madmunk, why should Grandpa's views count for any more than mine?"

And now we're on to something.

Thomas Paine wrote in his Rights of Man:
There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the 'end of time,' or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority in directing who shall be its governors, or how its government shall be organised, or how administered. (The emphasis is all mine; those are incredible lines.)

Now, you might argue that I shouldn't be appealing to historical figures in a discussion against donor intent, but I think it shows that history has a place in the discussion. I'm not against that - especially when they state the case very well. I'm against the presumption that the views of the donor matter more simply because he or she made the money. I don't listen to Thomas Paine because he's Thomas Paine. I listen to Thomas Paine because the guy was right. Similarly, I shouldn't listen to the donor because he or she was rich but because they had something important to say.

So I suggest a compromise. Donors should be allowed to speak, but that speech should be limited. Donors, if you have a specific intent (and by specific I mean anything more specific than "for the general improvement of humankind," but I could be persuaded otherwise) for your charitable dollars, you must place a time limit on the existence of the foundation (anything from the lifetime of the donor to, say, one or two generations). If you want the money to go to a specific community or cause, you must limit the number of generations you bind to that community or cause. When the foundation's time is up, it must either spend down or convert to a general-purpose foundation. The next generation must be allowed to chart its own course.

You see, I see this a lot from deliberative democracy theorists. "If only people were informed and gathered to discuss the issues, they would make the right decisions," they say, and by the "right" decisions, they too frequently mean "their" decisions. In the same way, if people want more respect for "donor intent" and a true "democracy of the dead," I say let them have it. Just understand that it will be a true democracy, which means at least two things: the past isn't always going to vote with you, and neither will I.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Who is Madmunk?

Either I was cursed with very cruel parents; I was blessed with very prescient parents who prepared me for a career as a supervillain, D&D fanatic, or blogger; or, Madmunk is a pseudonym.

Anonymity has an important place in the philanthropic world. The great philosopher Moses Maimonides placed anonymous giving just below the highest form of giving, entering into a partnership, in his eight levels of charity. Anonymity can protect the benefactor from unsolicited requests and enable him or her to practice giving solely for giving's sake. For these reasons, among others, donors sometimes seek to remain anonymous.

Anonymity also has an important place in the blogosphere. It protects a blogger from ad hominem attacks and frees a blogger to say what he or she thinks and feels without fear of reprisal. For these reasons, among others, I have elected to publish under a pseudonym.

If you must know, I live and work in the DC metro area, my heroes are Thomas Paine and Friedrich Nietzsche, and my favorite Bath & Body Works fragrance is Sheer Freesia. For those of you who do know who I am or happen to find out, I trust you to keep my identity secret for the time being.

I can be reached here.

In the meantime, my name is Madmunk, and this is Philanthropica.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Emerging Issues Tours Philanthropy's Blogosphere

The Council on Foundations' blog Emerging Issues gives a rundown of philanthropy's blogs.

Philanthropica is graced with a mention (thanks very much!), and Candidia Cruikshanks over at Wealth Bondage is simply thrilled with the recognition.

Thanks to Phil for all his work getting the conversation going.

The Weary Titan

Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian (via Clicked):
If you want to know what London was like in 1905, come to Washington in 2005. Imperial gravitas and massive self-importance. That sense of being the centre of the world, and of needing to know what happens in every corner of the world because you might be called on - or at least feel called upon - to intervene there. Hyperpower. Top dog. And yet, gnawing away beneath the surface, the nagging fear that your global supremacy is not half so secure as you would wish. As Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, put it in 1902: "The weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of his fate."

Someone else noticed, I see. I work in the district, and I've been telling friends lately that it feels like Paris just before the Revolution. His analogy's a better one. I don't imagine guillotines - just the end of an era. There's a creeping anxiety beneath the Mall's monuments. You feel like you're standing on top of something that can't quite hold itself together, can't go on much longer. It could be your political leanings, but even some people on the other side of the aisle can sense that all is not well in DC. I know a few folks who were here a decade ago or grew up here long ago and now have moved back, and, for them, there has been a tremendous change in the tenor of the city. Whether or not you agree with his claim that "Iraq is America's Boer war," I think Ash is on to something, and you can feel it in DC.

But this little blog of ours is supposed to be about philanthropy, and Ash's conclusion is a test for the philanthropic imagination:
So this is no time for schadenfreude. It's a time for critical solidarity. A few far-sighted people in Washington are beginning to formulate a long-term American strategy of trying to create an international order that would protect the interests of liberal democracies even when American hyperpower has faded; and to encourage rising powers such as India and China to sign up to such an order. That is exactly what today's weary Titan should be doing, and we should help him do it.

People set up foundations in perpetuity and make international grants, but do we consider when making these grants that America may not always occupy the place it does in today's international order? Can we count ourselves among those far-sighted few?

I ask because I don't think that looking at the world with these questions in mind demonstrates any lack of faith in America. If anything, it demonstrates a tremendous faith in our principles to think that they can and should survive even when the power that once sustained them passes away. Philanthropy is our way of assuring that our ideals live on even though we do not, that America still lives though its hyperpower fades.

Friday, August 26, 2005

If you're going to reform the sector...

...we have a few suggestions.

Authors Jan Masaoka and Jeanne Bell Peters offer an amazing set of "reforms to make nonprofits more effective and accountable." You'll wish you'd thought of them. You'll wish you'd said it first and laid it all out there like this. I know I do; they had me from proposal #1.

Scrapping "concerns of what is politically achievable," Masaoka and Peters are freed to tell it how it should be. It's fantastic. Circulate this to everyone you know. As much as I respect what Independent Sector has done with the Panel, I'd like this in the back of our leaders' minds come this fall.

Thanks to reader Nick for pointing us to this great critique.


Stephen Viederman, former president of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and co-founder of the Initiative for Fiduciary Responsibility, emailed Philanthropica some time ago with some fantastic resources on socially responsible investing (SRI) and the power of institutional investors to change the world for the better through shareholder resolutions and strategic investments. You can email Viederman here for those resources. They were just a few articles but very interesting stuff.

I'm extrapolating here and more than likely projecting, but I detected three major themes for philanthropists in his works:
  1. agents: philanthropy is mainly the province of large institutions run by elites, a group of folks Robert Monks simply called "top people;"

  2. aims: the philanthropy of these large institutions tends to favor the status quo; and

  3. actions: many foundations have become grant factories, forgoing the responsibility to consider the political, social, and environmental consequences of their investments out of a misplaced concern for the bottom line (when evidence shows that SRI can actually produce better results).

Reading through the articles, I am struck by the tremendous democratizing power of SRI. You'll notice that these themes basically describe a philanthropy of, by, and for elites as opposed to a more democratic philanthropy of, by, and for the people. Institutional investors, particularly foundations, can exert a powerful check on corporate power through their status as investors. We do tremendous good with our grants; imagine the good that could be accomplished via shareholder resolutions and the like.

SRI also democratizes the investment discussion. One of the things that I think keeps the philanthropic world in the shadows is that a lot of people don't know how foundations work exactly. The simple mechanics of it are lost on many who just see rich people giving money away here or there (or not). Furthermore, even those in the foundation world (and you find this, for instance, when training new board members) don't quite understand how the investment side of foundations works. I don't always anyway. With SRI, however, investments aren't an esoteric analysis of economic forces and trends but a consideration of the political, social, environmental, moral, and cultural implications of one's investments as well as that analysis. This makes investment not just a discussion for the financially hyperliterate but for everyone. I may not understand how to protect the bottom line in the way my expert investment manager would, but I do know that I don't want to compromise my mission through dealing with certain types of companies and that I might need to change how I deal with a company to make a difference. SRI makes that desire part of the investment equation, and it's brilliant.

Thanks to Steve for sending the stuff our way.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Cynic's Guide to the Foundation World, Part One

Community Foundations
In 1914, Frederick Goff did for philanthropy what halitosis did for Listerine: he created the "The Community." While no one knows who exactly this Community is (The Community does not keep membership records), thanks to Goff, we all know that (1) we owe it a great deal; (2) we are supposed to "give back" to it; and (3) community foundations like Goff's Cleveland Foundation can help us do that. Despite such auspicious beginnings, however, today, community foundations are the ruling elite's answer to the redneck front lawn, little more than parking lots for inoperable giving vehicles. Cut a philanthropist's grass, and you'll find another donor-advised fund his wife didn't know existed.

Company-sponsored Foundations
American corporations sponsor foundations the same way you sponsored that adorable child you saw on TV. Ever wonder what Sally Struthers' camera crew was eating? (Mmm, hey, let's order some pizza. No, you can't have any. This is mine.) Think about that the next time you read a corporate foundation's annual report. Thirty-five cents does go a long way, but if you spent half as much on grants as you did on PR, you could go much further. Company-sponsored foundations, however, are hampered by the fact that corporations are created to maximize shareholder value; hence, they cannot in good conscience give away someone else's hard-earned money. Corporate foundations, thus, have a great deal to learn from family foundation program officers.

Operating Foundations
For the discriminating philanthropist who truly understands that nonprofits are too stupid to be trusted with your philanthropic dreams, operating foundations allow you to foist your conception of the common good on unsuspecting at-risk folks without the annoying middlepersons. If you're up for "Extreme Makeover: Social Engineering Edition," consider the operating foundation your Home Depot. Sure, it might be better to call a plumber after a toilet explodes, but, hey, you're doing just fine on your own. Thank you very much. It's only medical research that could save millions of lives or none at all, a think tank that can inform Congress or lead it astray, or a museum that can preserve our common human history for generations to come or let it disappear forever - honestly, how hard can it be?

Independent Foundations
If a foundation doesn't give back to The Community, provide excellent PR for a foundering corporation, or, well, operate, the foundation is considered "independent." This independence, however, is exceedingly tenuous. As long as the your investment manager takes good care of your wallet, regulation isn't overly burdensome, the IRS doesn't order an audit, and the state attorney-general takes his foot off your neck, you're independent. Since none of these conditions currently obtain, "independent foundation," like "civil society," is a contradiction in terms.

Family Foundations
Family foundations form the last bastion of the aristocracy in our civilization on the brink of collapse. It’s incredibly important, nay, vital to the continued prosperous existence of our polyarchic society that you hold your considerable wealth hostage to your dysfunctional family dynamic. This incredible power to change the world for the better must be mercilessly tied in perpetuity to your dated dogma, backward values, and mindless idiosyncrasies lest the underclass climb out of the muck in which we so painstakingly keep them.

The Hiatus is Over

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming already in progress.