Friday, November 13, 2009

National Philanthropy Day

At United Way we believe everyone has the ability to give back to their community, regardless of their circumstances. As National Philanthropy Day approaches, please consider getting involved by giving, advocating or volunteering. It does not matter how you decide to get involved; it just matters that you do.

-Michelle N. Hantman, President
United Way of Greater New Bedford

I have always considered the United Way as a sort of "Chamber-of-Commerce-Lite." More contemporary, both sartorially and hygienically, United Way workers add a veneer of bureaucratic gravitas that many businesses in the civic sector need. Well-intentioned pencil pushers, cheerleaders, and bean counters, the United Way is indispensable in gentling the rabble to abstractions like "giving" and "volunteering," and usually remains far enough from actual philanthropists to do any real harm.I'm spreadin' it around, ma'am.My definition of "philanthropy" is less complicated but no less philosophical than the United Way's, as they focus on the three key building blocks of education, income and health. The United Way movement creates long lasting community change by addressing the underlying causes of problems that prevent progress in these areas. LIVE UNITED is a call to action for everyone to become a part of the change. LIVE UNITED.
Very nice. Also: not exactly philanthropy. What The United Way defines there is "humanitarian civic involvement." Shame that they have to set up offices in in thousands of cities around the world to show people how to take care of their neighbors and communities, since the private sector is too busy eating its young and not DONATING MONEY TO CHARITY. We've come that far, Milton Friedman.
I am not, despite former personal and professional connections, that mercenary.
Is it possible that philanthropy may be the only concrete outlet left for demonstrating true rational self-interest?Pretty subtle, huh?If we understand philanthropy as an ongoing fiduciary commitment to a group's reasonably well-defined goal -- with which our own goals concur -- we can appreciate the Development Director's maxim, "Giving is Getting." When a donor agrees with the mission set by a non-profit and acts to support that particular organization, program, or service, the reward is obvious. I mean, even besides all that emotional "feeling good about yourself" stuff. What could be more consciously selfish than ensuring your own happiness by giving money to a place that houses artifacts (or shows paintings, or presents speakers, musicians, or literature) that interest you?
But the non-profit or civic sector has always been there when the for-profit sector has failed. "Trickle down" was a failure of the for-profit sector and the non-profit sector was there to house the errors. Literally.
Remember that the next time that you whine (incorrectly) about non-profits taking your "hard-earned tax dollars." They don't take your tax money; they manage their own business well enough to succeed, make a profit, and put that profit back into their business and its mission, exempt from taxes because they serve the community. All the while being misunderstood and ignored, if not watched, maligned, questioned, monitored and regulated more than any private corporation that is given a tax break just for moving in.
Because a private corporation's only "mission" is to make money.
Not that that's a bad thing, mind you. It lifts the corporation above suspicion of any underhandedness. The non-profit business, however, declares its mission to "help and serve" its community.
Which is a very suspect admission indeed.

(This presentation includes photographs of Brooke Astor and Patricia Neal.)


Karie said...

Wonderfully framed and thoughtful post. The world would be a better place if more people understood what you draw out so easily. Thank you!

PJ said...

Thanks for your kind words, Karie. I notice a lot of Non-profit professionals ("non-profiteers"?) have blogs and websites dealing with arcane and inside industry topics, but they can't inform or educate the very public that they serve.

That is not their mission, of course, but the very people who insist that non-profits are "taking their hard-earned tax money" don't complain when their local Office of Economic Development gives a big national corporate chain a break on property taxes

karie said...

Oh, I think a great deal of time and effort is spent on the part of thousands of non-profit professionals (executive directors, in particular) in trying to help "educate the public," starting with the community members who sit on their boards of trustees/directors. Just helping the people who accept those posts (you can forget getting to the people who really dispise non-profits until these people have first been reached) learn the realities of the "job" they have accepted, the service, and then DO IT, is an uphill battle.

The problem I see is that America as a whole is "a black and white thinker". And it seems to have come to value profit/money over society's well-being, thus rewarding the pursuit of the former and demonizing the latter. The realitiy of the complexity of our society is quickly glossed over, leaving no room for the millions of shades of gray. I think M.S.Peck had it right - the original sin is "laziness." I believe John Adams would be deeply ashamed!

Maybe I'll write a book. I can title it "I believe John Adams Would Be Deeply Ashamed!"

PJ said...

John Adams said that there should be two types of education: "One should teach us how to make a living, and the other teaches us how to live."