Tuesday, August 30, 2005

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.

1 comment:

Phil Anthropoid said...

There’s a lot to think about in your post, Madmunk. I look at the issue of donor intent from the perspective of one who wishes to promote giving. First, I’m convinced that the more giving options a donor has, the more likely it is he’ll find one that suits him and consequently the more likely it is he’ll give and give generously. I also think a donor is likely to give more if he believes his intentions will be honored. For this reason alone, I feel it’s important to honor donor intent—yea, even unto the farthest reaches of time—although I suppose we can achieve the same incentive effect by promising to honor donor wishes for 1,000 years, say. Nonprofits and foundations have the power to redirect a donor gift when the donor’s original intention no longer makes any sense (e.g., if the donor specified that his gift be used to find a cure for smallpox and smallpox has been completely eradicated). This should be sufficient to take care of the problem cases.