Philanthropy for What?

John Oliver. Peter Thiel. The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

We were catching up on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver when my husband leaned over to me and asked, “So, is that philanthropy? Is that what it’s for?”

John Oliver had just finished, in his typical over-the-top style, giving away $60,000 to forgive $14.9M of medical debt, instantly releasing 9,000 Texans from financial burden. “So, is that philanthropy?” Ben asked. “It seems more like marketing to me.” I fumbled for a response. Poor people benefitted, but the giving was unseemly. So I dodged.

“You know, Peter Thiel,” I said to Ben, “the billionaire Facebook investor and PayPal founder? He just said ‘one of [his] greater philanthropic things that [he’s] done’ was bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media. He has a personal vendetta because Gawker outed him years and years ago. I’m very sure that’s not philanthropy.”

But Ben is stubborn, and he didn’t let it go. He was giving voice to an important question I’ve been pondering and that was driven home yesterday and today in the reporting about a shooting at a gay club in Orlando, which has become the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

At CEP I work with foundations with all different kinds of goals. I truly believe that it’s intrinsically important that the diversity of their goals reflect our society’s pluralism. Philanthropy is a reflection of our hearts — putting into tangible form our often inchoate sense of generosity, connection to others, and sometimes horror and sorrow — and leads inevitably to programs to support elementary schools, health insurance reform, cancer research, symphony orchestras, protection of natural places, domestic violence prevention, and community homelessness, etc., etc., and a thousand more et ceteras.

At CEP, my colleagues and I work hard every day to help make philanthropy more effective because each of those efforts can be important. Because each might help our society live fuller, more meaningful, and, I hope, more equitable lives. So, yes, John Oliver’s stunt was philanthropy. And it should have been more effective, especially now that it seems he took the idea, uncredited, from an activist group called Debt Collective — after he’d gotten advice from them directly! That he didn’t follow up his segment at least with connections to Debt Collective or other ways for his viewers to act seems like a waste of his celebrity philanthropy. So it was philanthropy, albeit just so.

Which takes me to Orlando. A horror so deep — 50 people murdered and many more wounded at a Latin night at a gay club — that words fail me. The entanglement of almost intractable problems this terrible night represents are so visceral and so many: homophobia, racism, insufficient gun laws, a broken democratic process to solve those problems, and more.

It’s a challenge to optimism. And yet. And yet, I’m thankful for the efforts of foundations hurling themselves with vigor and commitment at these problems. For Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and Arcus Foundation. For Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and W. K. Kellogg Foundation. For The Joyce Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. For Democracy Fund, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Etc., etc., and a thousand more et ceteras.

That we have these and many, many more foundations working on these deep challenges is important.

And yet. And yet, it has not been enough.

I’m reminded of a story about foundation goals. It comes from a conversation we had with a communications director about his foundation’s CEO early in CEP’s history. Speaking of how it’s all too easy to dilute a foundation’s work into inconsequence, he told us (roughly), “As a foundation CEO, you wake up in the morning, read about some event in the paper, and think, ‘I can do something about this!’ Why don’t we have a program focused on this? So you walk into work and call up your program officer, and you create one. And the next think you know, you’ve created a dozen programs, and they don’t add up to much.”

It’s possible that’s true. And focusing resources on a strategy is important for effectiveness.

But today I hope foundation CEOs and trustees wake up and read the continuing coverage of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub. I hope they think, “Maybe I could do something because this is what philanthropy is for. It’s for solving our most pressing and intertwined problems. It’s for choosing and sticking with potentially controversial issues and for taking risks when others can’t or won’t. It’s for giving voice to our optimism that we can always be better.” 

I hope they decide that their foundations and programs — new and old — will be committed to effectiveness in work that manifests an abiding belief that we can be a just society in which this never happens again.

Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @kmbolduc.

To support the victims and families affected by yesterday’s shooting, you can donate to this GoFundMe campaign from Equality Florida, the state’s LGBT civil rights organization.

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