Giving America a Good Name
The Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge offers an instructive, if unintended, case study in American exceptionalism. In the United States, the pledge quickly prompted commitments (some previously announced) from 40 billionaires who promised to dedicate at least half of their wealth to charity (please see facing page). The rest of world has been notably less enthusiastic. In Europe, several billionaires complained that signing the pledge would be ostentatious and gauche. Others took the view of Peter Krämer, a Hamburg-based multimillionaire shipping magnate. Krämer gave an interview with Der Spiegel in which he complained that the pledge allowed “superwealthy people . . . to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state.” In India, five billionaires contacted by India Real Time refused to comment on whether they intended to participate. In China, the proposal has met with caution. Despite commitments from Feng Jun and Chen Guangbiao—and notwithstanding Chen’s (unverified) claim that he has pledges from 100 other wealthy Chinese who wish to remain anonymous—the general reception has been muted. Americans have many reasons to be grateful to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, not least for reminding them of their country’s exceptional generosity.
New Weighs to Give
Donors often sigh about the bloated staff that weighs down American higher education. An anonymous alumna of Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, takes the issue particularly literally. She has pledged $1 million if the college’s 200 employees collectively lose 250 pounds by the end of the year. And as a bonus, if the college’s president loses 25 pounds, the donor will throw in an extra $100,000. “The donor is an extraordinary example of a woman who’s led a healthy lifestyle,” the president told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “She’s 87 years old and weighs exactly what she did when she married her husband—117 pounds. It’s a point of pride for her that she has maintained her youthful physique.”
Y the Change?
The YMCA is no more. Like NPR (formerly National Public Radio), BP (née British Petroleum), and KFC (the erstwhile Kentucky Fried Chicken), it has ditched its clunky old brand in favor of a sleek new acronym. From now on, the YMCA will formally be known as “the Y.” The new name is a way “of being warmer, more genuine, more welcoming,” Kate Coleman, the organization’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, told the New York Times in July. The article quotes branding experts who suggest that the move makes sense in the “era of Twitter.” Others encourage such changes whenever an organization has modified its services or “outgrown its name.” The Y today is a different organization from that founded by Thomas Valentine Sullivan and his six colleagues who, on December 29, 1851, drew up a constitution for the country’s first Young Men’s Christian Association. Anyone considering endowment or perpetual gifts would be well advised to remember the words of Ovid, who was lapidary long before Twitter: Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. “Everything changes; nothing perishes.”
More Durable than Brass
“Generous,” as Samuel Johnson defined it, is the quality of being “noble of mind; magnanimous; open of heart; liberal; munificent; strong; vigorous.” It was a quality that Dr. Johnson found conspicuously lacking in Philip Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield. (Lord Chesterfield had agreed to sponsor Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, but during the seven arduous years Johnson labored on it, Chesterfield provided a mere £10.) At the tercentenary of the good doctor’s birth, private philanthropy has proven itself somewhat more generous. Notable among the dozens of tributes to Johnson around the world was “A Monument More Durable than Brass,” an exhibit at Harvard’s Houghton Library, supported by the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Eccles Collection. Mary Hyde, Viscountess Eccles, was for 60 years an astute and devoted collector of Johnsonia; after her death in 2003, she bequeathed her entire collection to Houghton Library. Hundreds of items—rare first editions, original manuscripts, obscure prints, personal letters, and contemporary artwork—were on display. Many of these have since been digitized and made available online. Altogether, Eccles’ donation—and millions of others like it—represents the spirit of a free society, which can be defined in part as “Generous.”
Public Dollars Crowd Out Private Support
Do government grants crowd out private support for nonprofits? A National Bureau of Economic Research paper argues that in fact they do. James Andreoni of the University of California, San Diego, and A. Abigail Payne of McMaster University report that crowding out comes not from the “classic” effect, in which donors reduce their giving in response to the introduction of tax dollars. Rather, the cause appears to be “fundraising crowd-out,” in which nonprofits relax their efforts to win private funding after an infusion of government cash. “Our estimates show significant crowding out of about 73 percent—every $1,000 [government] grant reduces giving by $727,” write Andreoni and Payne.
The Fine Art of Philanthropy
In August, philanthropist Eli Broad received final approval to build an art museum in downtown Los Angeles for his 2,000-piece collection of contemporary art. Broad is the latest of a string of billionaires to build museums for their collections, including Alice Walton, whose Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is currently under construction in Bentonville, Arkansas; LVMH founder Bernard Arnault, who is building a Frank Gehry–designed museum for his collection in Paris; and Christie’s owner François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The Guardian rather uncharitably dubbed these “the ultimate status symbol for the super-rich . . . ‘ego-seums,’” and lamented how hard it can be for older, more traditional (and often tax-supported) museums to compete. Asked one wag: “Is the Guardian saying that the collections should be locked up and kept private?”
“Among democratic nations,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville, “all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another.” That exceptional voluntary spirit that Tocqueville noted in Americans is alive and well, according to a recent report from the National Council on Citizenship. The percentage of Americans who volunteered, worked with their neighbors, or both, has risen from 2007 to 2009. And as with charitable giving, more than a third of volunteer resources went to religious causes, with education following at about a quarter, and social services at about 14 percent.
Intent in Tension in Tennessee
Some 60 years ago, Georgia O’Keeffe donated 101 paintings from the collection of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to Fisk University in Nashville. The terms of the gift stipulated that it never be sold. The collection today is valued at $74 million. It includes works by Picasso, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and O’Keeffe herself. Fisk, strapped for cash, has gone to court, seeking to be released from the terms so that it can sell a half-share of the collection to the aforementioned Crystal Bridges Museum, which would then share the art with Fisk. Fisk contends that without the sale, it may need to close its doors. State Attorney General Bob Cooper opposes the sale, arguing not only that “it would violate the intent of the donor,” adding that “failure to adhere to the intent of the donor in this case would establish a precedent that could discourage future charitable giving in Tennessee.”
John Kluge, RIP
John Werner Kluge was born in Chemnitz, Germany, little more than a month after the guns of August opened World War I. He came to the United States as a boy, and left home at 16 to work on the Ford assembly line. He attended Columbia on a scholarship, served in World War II, and got into broadcasting. In 1959, he bought five television stations, which became the core of Metromedia, which became what the Washington Post called “the nation’s largest independent television business.” Shunning the spotlight, Kluge was able to make bigger deals than other, more prominent, media barons. Kluge was also a serious philanthropist; he gave over half a billion dollars to his alma mater, including $400 million for scholarships. The University of Virginia received more than $63 million, including Kluge’s Albemarle County estate. He also gave $73 million to the Library of Congress, underwriting—among other things—the John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences. With a purse of $1 million, the Kluge Prize is designed to be awarded to disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prizes. Notable Kluge laureates include the eminent historians Peter Brown, John Hope Franklin, and Jaroslav Pelikan, as well as philosophers Leszek Kolakowski and Paul Ricœur. Kluge passed away on September 7, just a fortnight shy of his 96th birthday. “Work isn’t really work for me,” Kluge told Forbes in 1990. “I’ve never liked the weekend in my life. I was enthusiastic about Monday morning from the day I left college.” Work on, good man. May your yoke stay easy and your burden light.