In 1996, Slate magazine introduced the Slate 60, an annual list of America’s top charitable givers designed to counter the influence of the Forbes 400. The very existence of the Forbes 400 as a yardstick of merit is itself a significant measure of our culture’s warped values.
But when the Slate 60 took shape, it looked less like a manifestation of the biblical admonition “from whom much is given, from him that much more shall be expected” than a celebration of self-aggrandizing gifts that only serve to make the world of the super-rich just a little nicer. Those helping the needy have been in short supply, while those giving to already-flush universities and museums, often to fund buildings bearing their names, have been everywhere.
So last June, I wrote a column critical of the list. It was time, I said, to start deconstructing charitable giving and stop defining it as any tax-deductible contribution to any old 501(c)(3)—a classification that lumps together a soup kitchen and a university with an endowment larger than the GDP of Haiti.
Responding to my objection to the buck-is-a-buck-is-a-buck nature of the rankings, Slate’s editor, Michael Kinsley, suggested I come up with a formula for adjusting the list—correcting for true philanthropic spirit as one might correct consumer spending figures for inflation. Hoping to encourage some voluntary income redistribution in the midst of our unprecedented and very unequally apportioned prosperity, I devised a Compassion Index—or as Slate dubbed it: “The Slate 60 Huffington Virtue Remix.”
I’m a big believer in using any means necessary—including shame—to bring about a fundamental shift in the way we deal with the least among us. The Slate 60 is based on the principle of praise. But those on the uncorrected list get plenty of that. It’s time for some shame.
So the Virtue Remix awards Minus Points for the aforementioned self-aggrandizing gifts, and Plus Points for gifts that help overcome poverty, alleviate suffering, and turn lives around. For example: investing in buildings instead of people will cost you 10 percent (with another 15 percent deduction if the gift goes to a building named after yourself); donors get 20 percent off for “self-referential giving” directly connected to the donor’s business interests; and there is a sliding scale of demerits based on the age of the donor at the time of giving—this might be called the “What Took You So Long?” factor.
A 10 percent bonus, on the other hand, is awarded for giving to K-12 education where the crisis is, rather than to higher education where the prestige and the big bucks are. And there’s a 15 percent bonus if giving time goes along with the gift of money.
The effect of the Index on this year’s list was telling: Forty-three donors had more points taken away than added, while only four gained points. A few donors dropped more than 20 places, and one moved up 13.
In her book Why the Wealthy Give, Harvard sociologist Francie Ostrower shows that the rich tend to assume that the government will take care of the poor and that giving to the arts and prestigious schools confirms their status as members of a cultured elite. So if we are what we support, and if private giving, like hemlines, follows fashion, it is time we made giving to save lives and communities fashionable.
I remember attending a fundraising gala for the Washington Opera a few years back—part of its drive to raise $105 million for renovations. Sitting in the Kennedy Center, surveying a sea of men in black tie and women in frothy ball gowns, I listened to the announcement that the evening had raised $2.5 million.
My admiration for the ability of opera houses to raise millions of dollars was tempered by a longing for the day when we could raise as much money to bring shelter to the homeless, treatment to the addicted, and help to children who are abused or neglected. And this is the cry of an unapologetic art lover who has spent many more hours in opera houses, concert halls, and museums than in homeless shelters.
“For our society to have a soul,” someone said from the stage that night at the opera, “we must embrace the arts.” But our society cannot have a soul if we do not embrace those most vulnerable among us with at least as much commitment as we bring to the arts.
The original catalyst for the Slate 60 was Ted Turner’s warning that the “new super-rich won’t loosen up their wads because they’re afraid they’ll reduce their net worth and go down on the Forbes list.” His corrective was “to honor the generous and shame the stingy.” The next step is to insist that not all generosity is created equal—and to honor those among the generous whose sights extend beyond their own enclaves.
Arianna S. Huffington is the author of How to Overthrow the Government.