Presented below are the welcome remarks delivered by Adam Meyerson, president of The Philanthropy Roundtable, to the 22nd Annual Meeting on October 17, 2013, in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
Our 2013 Annual Meeting theme is “A Leading Role for Philanthropy.” Philanthropy played a leading role in the life of the first private owner of what is now Rancho Palos Verdes.
Juan Jose Dominguez was born in the 1730s in Sinaloa, Mexico, in what was then the Spanish Empire. He joined the Spanish army, and he served in California protecting the Franciscan missions established by Fr. Junipero Serra. These missions, funded by an endowment that originated in voluntary donations by Mexican families and churches, were one of the most significant charitable ventures in early American history. And Spanish authorities rewarded Dominguez for his service by giving him one of the first private land grants in California, originally including this peninsula. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Dominguez’s nephew Manuel went on to serve as mayor of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the city of angels. And when California joined the United States, Manuel was one of the original signers of the state’s constitution.
This is a time of great national conflict. Our political leaders are making fundamental choices about the future of economic growth and job creation, entitlement programs, and the role of government in health care. The American people are deeply divided on many of these issues, and our federal government can seem dysfunctional, even paralyzed.
But I am happy to report: philanthropy does not shut down. The amazing generosity of the American people is not paralyzed. Every week Americans voluntarily give away $6 billion to help other people. This charitable giving is central to American life. It is the lifeblood of our churches, synagogues and other religious institutions. It has helped to make our colleges and universities, public as well as private, the best in the world. It is indispensable for the flourishing of the arts, science and medicine, and the protection of habitat. It provides food for the hungry, care for the sick, shelter for the homeless.
And when Americans give away our money, we don’t have to seek approval from Harry Reid or Ted Cruz or any other political leader. We can make our charitable decisions ourselves.
Consider three donations in the last few weeks. Laura and John Arnold of Houston gave $10 million to re-open Head Start centers that were abruptly closed as part of the government shutdown. The Fisher House Foundation opened its 62nd home enabling the families of wounded servicemembers to live near the military hospitals where their loved ones are being treated. And Bruce and Susie Kovner gave $60 million to the Juilliard School to provide fellowships for extraordinarily promising classical musicians.
These three donations represent philanthropic freedom at its best. An American citizen, or group of citizens, sees a problem, and steps up to find a solution, without waiting for government to act. Not everyone will agree with the decisions they make. Not everyone would give away his own money in the same way. But that is one of the great strengths of philanthropy. In a free, pluralistic society, different individuals will pursue different charitable objectives.
Tyrants have always understood the connection between freedom and philanthropy. In a fascinating recent book called Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum describes the Soviet strategy for seizing totalitarian control of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries after World War II. The Soviets had four immediate priorities. They created an extensive secret police that used violence against opponents of the regime. They took control of the mass media, which at that time meant radio. They forcibly uprooted ethnic minorities from their homes. And they suppressed or put under Communist leadership almost every independent institution of civil society, including women’s groups, church organizations, and Boy and Girl Scouts.
Other totalitarian regimes, from Nazi Germany to North Korea to the ayatollahs in Iran, have similarly moved swiftly to crush civil society. They see independent private institutions as a threat to their centralized power.
By contrast, independent private institutions have been part of the American character throughout our history. To protect this tradition, The Philanthropy Roundtable and our legislative arm the Alliance for Charitable Reform are fighting hard to protect the freedom of donors and foundations to decide where to give away their money. Voluntary charitable giving sustains the independence of private institutions. Freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech and association ultimately depend on the freedom of private charities to raise money from their supporters. Philanthropic freedom is essential for a free society.
This is also one of the main reasons we are fighting to preserve the charitable deduction. Voluntary donations to charities are one of the principal ways Americans express our responsibilities as citizens of a self-governing republic. The charitable deduction protects the independence of both individual citizens and the charities they support. And by excluding contributions from taxation, it reinforces the traditional American understanding that private donations belong to civil society, not the government.
Over the next two days, we will explore how philanthropy can play a leading role in finding solutions for the nation’s challenges over the next decade. Here are some questions I hope we will consider:
One of the greatest success stories of charitable giving in our times is the growth of multiple charter-school networks where low-income children excel academically. Tomorrow at lunch we will honor Eli and Edythe Broad, winners of the 2013 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, who have been leaders in this effort. These high-performing charter-school networks and other reforms made possible by philanthropy offer solutions for the crisis in K-12 education. Over the next decade can philanthropy help take these success stories to scale, and overcome barriers in public policy that prevent public school systems from replicating this success?
Can philanthropy provide fresh thinking about how to offer hope and opportunity for low-income families and neighborhoods? Federal and state governments now spend over $900 billion a year on means-tested programs for the poor—such as food stamps, refundable tax credits, housing vouchers, and Medicaid. This safety net has dramatically reduced hunger, homelessness, and other forms of material poverty. Unfortunately, it has also coincided with the collapse of families, the breakdown of the social fabric, and a slowdown in upward mobility. Millions of Americans now feel trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder. There is not much the government can do to repair the social fabric, put families back together, or restore a sense of optimism that the American Dream is still open for those who work hard. Can philanthropy lead the way in strengthening families and communities and the social capital so important for upward mobility?
Thanks in part to philanthropy, America has long had the greatest colleges and universities in the world. But tuition costs are rising unsustainably, the quality of teaching and research is mediocre on all too many campuses, all too many students graduate unprepared for work and citizenship, and the technological revolution that has transformed everything from medicine to industry to communications has largely passed higher education by. Over the next decade, can philanthropy help universities create new business models that will incorporate the best of technological innovation while retaining and strengthening the distinctive virtues of residential campuses? We have a very exciting opening session on this subject.