As I read David Callahan’s November 30, 2014 New York Times opinion essay about the private philanthropy behind the planned Pier 55—a new offshore public park in a previously industrialized section of the Hudson River—I was reminded of one the old phrase: No good deed goes unpunished. While conceding that park-giving generosity is “admirable,” Mr. Callahan worries that “it also poses a threat to the ability of everyday Americans to have an equal voice in civic life” and “is part of a larger story about rising inequality and shrinking democracy.”
These concerns are worth addressing. Howard Husock makes some interesting observations here. Following are some further thoughts.
At the root of Callahan’s polemic are twin premises: 1) The public sector should make the decisions that affect what he calls “the basic parts of American life.” 2) Our failure to make “a new class of Medicis” pay more taxes prevents the public sector from exerting that appropriate control.
One might ask then how it came to be that in the 1970s, when tax rates on the wealthiest Americans were significantly higher, Central Park fell into such a sorry state that it took private action and the formation of the Central Park Conservancy to restore that jewel. Or why, just this year, the Italian government—no stranger to high income and sales taxes—began to seek private donors to fund the restoration of landmark monuments like the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. If the “public sphere” bloats to the point where effective management is impossible, then is it so hard to understand why private initiative steps up? This is not the replacement of democracy—it is the very soul of democracy.
Callahan also frets that the new park may not be useful for “ordinary people,” since he believes that spaces like amphitheaters, footpaths, and gardens are part of an affluent lifestyle. Whoever these “ordinary people” might be, are we to believe that they don’t enjoy live entertainment, that they don’t walk, bicycle, or rollerblade, and that they never, ever take time to smell the roses? The version of Central Park managed by the private nonprofit Central Park Conservancy is visited 38 million times a year by 9 million different people. There were 3 million visits from people who live in Harlem and East Harlem, and 3 million visits from people who live in other boroughs outside Manhattan. Attendance is more than triple what it was when the park was city-managed.
The High Line park is another philanthropic gift to New York City. Though still not finished, it will thrill 5 million visitors in 2014, and has sparked an estimated $2 billion of economic development in a formerly depressed district. It seems quite reasonable to assume that millions of “ordinary people” will enjoy similar personal use, and neighborhood revitalization benefits, when a Pier 55 park is created out of nothing thanks to the extraordinary generosity of New York donors.
Callahan suggests that the private nonprofit conservancies that manage today’s most public-pleasing parks should be forced to give some portion of the funds donated to them to parks in low-income communities. This shows a shocking indifference to basic fundraising ethics and the principle of donor intent—you don’t take money that people voluntarily give to you for one purpose and blithely redirect it to something different. That deceives and disrespects private givers, and undercuts the primary motive for charitable giving, which is to help out on an issue of your own choosing.
Private philanthropy is a hallmark of American life because it encourages donors to use not only their wealth but also their knowledge and creativity to benefit a cause that engages and excites them. To constrain philanthropic freedom by turning voluntary contributions into mandated tributes distorts the essence of charity and will most certainly discourage future gifts. Those who complain about the city-run parks might better use their energy asking why the city government is such a poor manager. Or, more positively, they could engage in the sort of private civic action that builds passionate, organic support for good causes. That would be much more socially constructive than browbeating private givers and resorting to the hollow solution of compulsion.
Joanne Florino is senior vice president for public policy at The Philanthropy Roundtable.