Living for the Death Tax?
Death and taxes may well be inevitable, but new research indicates that the two might be related in an unexpected way. According to the Washington Post, “apparently some determined but terminally ill people manage to will themselves to live just long enough to qualify for a scheduled cut in the estate tax.” A new University of Michigan study finds that mortality rates are lower in the period immediately preceding an announced cut in estate tax rates. Moreover, they found that over the past century, every $1,000 in anticipated tax savings led to a 0.6 percent decrease in the likelihood of dying before the cut was enacted. Who knew that tax cuts were actually good for you?
A Home for Hizzoner
A Maryland resident stunned the nation’s capital in February with her offer of two $50 million grants: one to build a new estate for the city’s mayor located on a 17-acre expanse of choice D.C. real estate, and the other to restore and preserve the city’s trees. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams currently lives in a rented two-bedroom apartment, and the donor, philanthropist Betty Brown Casey, believes it would be helpful for the city to have a place where the mayor could entertain guests and dignitaries, á la New York City’s Gracie Mansion. (And after years of budget crises and neglect, the city’s trees can certainly use the help.) Casey’s offer was immediately questioned by members of D.C.’s City Council, who griped that the proposed mayoral mansion would be located in too nice a neighborhood.
Pick up any high school newspaper (or read any college admission application) and you’re bound to read about how much today’s students love to volunteer. A bill before the Texas legislature would require students to volunteer for nonprofit or community groups for at least 28 hours per semester as a condition of graduating from college. Supporters of the bill cite surveys showing that 60 percent of college students already do some volunteer work and suggest that the new requirement would motivate the rest. Opponents say that requiring people to “volunteer” is oxymoronic and unduly burdensome. The criticism has stung the bill’s sponsor, Democrat Pete Gallegos, who complained to the Dallas Morning News that “people are focusing on ‘mandatory’ and ‘volunteering.’ We as a state regulate how many hours of math and science a student takes. This is just another degree requirement. A lot of us recognize that a lot of learning in life takes place outside of the classroom.” But one high school senior (perhaps speaking for slackers everywhere?) penned an outraged op-ed for the Houston Chronicle opposing the bill. While conceding that “community service in itself is not wrong,” this young man equates the proposed requirement with “servitude, collectivism, Marxism . . . forced labor, oppression, [and] subjugation.” Who says today’s youth aren’t civic-minded enough?
Another Biggest Ever
Philanthropic chicken littles keep predicting a downturn in charitable giving, but the steady drumbeat of “biggest ever” gifts just keeps thumping along. The most recent beneficiary of historically gargantuan largesse is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. The anonymous donor who gave the school $130 million in December decided to triple his (or her) donation to a staggering $360 million in March, with no restrictions on how the money should be spent. The school’s president was understandably grateful, telling the New York Times, “Right now, we’re in investment mode. The beauty of the gift is both its magnitude and the fact that we have the choice on how to spend it.” Even more amazing, it only took a few weeks for someone to up the ante: in May, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced a $400 million grant to Stanford University to benefit the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. Not that Stanford is hurting—the school raised $580 million last year, nudging it past perennial leader Harvard in the race for annual college fund raising honors.
Founding Father Spared
The famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery almost hit the auction block, but the eleventh-hour intervention of an anonymous donor saved the day. The young British aristocrat who owns the painting had threatened to sell it on the open market unless the Smithsonian coughed up $20 million by April 1st. In March, an initially anonymous donor agreed to pay the money and donate the portrait to the museum. So who is the mystery donor? It was the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas, Nevada. What’s more, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the foundation is kicking in an additional $10 million—$6 million to support the nationwide tour and $4 million to fund a special display for the portrait at the gallery, which is undergoing renovation.” Foundation president Steven L. Anderson explains the generous—and timely—gift: “This is an unusual grant for us. The idea that it would be available for schoolchildren across the country to see—that struck our patriotic core.”
I E-Gave at the Office
The prospect of making money through charity-related Web portals seemed like a really great idea just a few months ago. Well, times have changed. Charitableway, a for-profit business that attracted about $30 million in venture capital, shut down in March. And at a recent trade show for fund raisers in San Diego, the number of booths representing dot-com ventures was half what it was a year ago. According to Industry Standard magazine, online philanthropy “has been plagued by failures since the fall. More than six companies in the small sector have closed because their services hadn’t been adopted and, in the case of Charitableway, aggressive expansion in a sluggish market.”
A Silver Lining to Dot-Bombs
While most people have bemoaned the massive layoffs sweeping through the dot-com world, one group views them with eager anticipation. According to Wired magazine, the “steady stream of layoffs—according to a recent survey, 9,533 more dot-commers were given pink slips in February—means that many skilled, energetic, potential workers who would previously shun a low-paying, do-gooder position at a nonprofit are on the market, looking for something to do with themselves.” Some nonprofits, which hadn’t been able to offer the kind of salaries and option packages that tech workers wanted, are now aggressively snapping up the newly unemployed. It can’t hurt that, as one for-profit-to-nonprofit refugee puts it, “Working for a cause is a status symbol, and that really speaks to the dot-com generation.”
Too Much of a Good Thing
The San Jose Mercury News recently offered a “note to dot-coms and failing businesses: Even charities don’t want your stuff.” There are now so many dot-bombs in the Bay Area trying to fob off their surplus office furniture and equipment on local charities that some nonprofits have literally run out of space. According to the Mercury News, one dot-com liquidator “spent the last two weeks trying to give away 10 desks, 10 filing cabinets, and about 40 chairs. Someone laughed at his 8-year-old copier. A guy came out from Salvation Army and shook his head. Nothing personal, you understand. ‘He told me, “I go to three failed dot-coms a day and tell them I don’t want their stuff.”’” Explains a local Goodwill official, “We don’t want to seem ungrateful—it’s nice that people think of us. But sometimes we do have to say, ‘No,’ because we just can’t.” And this most peculiar charity phenomenon appears to have spread to the Pacific Northwest as well. According to one Seattle furniture reseller, while desks, chairs, and tables have been unloaded into the secondary market in abundance, for some reason Foosball tables—those icons of the dot-com workplace—haven’t yet found their way to charities. He told the Seattle Times that “there really isn’t a flood on the Foosball market.”
A Hefty Vig
The good news is that Americans were generous enough to give away over a billion dollars last year to charities that employed commercial fund raisers. The bad news is that only a third of that money ever got to the intended charities. A new study conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy reveals that the rest of the donated money was gobbled up by fund raisers’ expenses and profits. Significantly, fund raisers hired by smaller nonprofits kept a higher percentage of the take, while those for larger national nonprofits kept an average of “only” 58 percent of the money raised.
Big Hearts in the Big House?
A story in the Indianapolis Star tells the tale of Loretta Stonebreaker, a 60-year-old woman “with a pleasant smile, [who] spends free time in a sewing circle stitching together teddy bears for sick children. Her mind wanders as she sits and sews and talks and laughs. At times, Stonebreaker is so preoccupied that she forgets that she is an inmate in a maximum-security prison.” Loretta, who’s serving a 60-year sentence for hiring two men to shoot her husband, finds solace in sewing teddy bears for RSVP Love Bears, a charity group that gives them to children in hospitals. “Just because we’re in prison doesn’t mean actually we’re bad people,” she says. Another inmate, 54-year-old Joan Green, recounts how it “warms her heart” to help make a bear that will bring joy to a sick child. “It makes me feel good,” says Green, who was convicted of beating her child to death with an iron skillet. “It’s a way to give something back.”
He was charming, sophisticated, and rich. Sometimes, those “qualifications” can be enough—or at least they seemed to be for several now-embarrassed university administrators. According to the Seattle Times, “it took little more to get Ravi Gunvant Desai embraced by the University of Washington, two other public universities, and a small private college—all of which are still waiting for him to deliver more than $5 million in pledges he made to their poetry programs.” Apparently Mr. Desai managed to convince a number of charities that he was a big philanthropic fish to be wined and dined—but as yet he hasn’t delivered on his charitable pledges. Desai claims in an email to the Times that he plans to pay up eventually and complains that he’s been the victim of a “smear” campaign. But his explanations might be regarded with some skepticism: “Records and interviews reveal that Desai claimed job titles and stock options he never held and married his second wife without divorcing his first, whom he said was dead.”