Fall 2012 – Briefly Noted

Niall Ferguson s civil society, not-so-sweet lemonade buyers, Greeks bearing gifts, and more

To Clear the Beach

Niall Ferguson—Harvard historian, Oxford don, and proud Scotsman—recently gave a series of lectures on the BBC on the topic of “The Rule of Law and Its Enemies.” His final lecture, delivered at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, concerned the decline of civil society in the United Kingdom. Ferguson opened with a vivid account of the garbage strewn across the beach near a cottage he owns in southern Wales. His own efforts to clean up the shore proved fruitless. Petitions to the local council went unheeded. Then he involved the local branch of the Lions Club. “As a result of their involvement,” said Ferguson, “the shoreline was transformed. The plastic bottles were bagged and properly disposed of; the roses were freed from their ragged polythene wrappings.” The experience led Ferguson to meditate on the benefits of private, voluntary initiative. “Like Tocqueville,” he concluded, “I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens.” It teaches us to “govern ourselves; to educate our children; to care for the helpless; to fight crime; to clear the beach of rubbish.”

Feeney’s Finale

Charles F. Feeney, the multi-billionaire co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, has long made known his plans to give away his entire fortune within his lifetime. In early August, he discussed the progress of those efforts with Jill Dwyer of the New York Times. Feeney has set 2016 as the target date for ending grantmaking at his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies. To get there, he will need to give away another $1.5 billion. To date, the foundation has funded roughly $6 billion in a variety of activities, including higher education, health care, and programs for the elderly; it was also a major backer of peace and reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland and South Africa. The Atlantic Philanthropies is scheduled to close its doors sometime around 2020. When it does so, it will be the largest foundation ever to have spent itself out of existence. Feeney reiterated his commitment to the goal of completing his giving while he is still around to provide guidance. As he told Dwyer, “I want the last check I write to bounce.”

Needs Sugar

Jake Olen lives with his family on a leafy cul-de-sac in the suburbs. Like millions of other American kids, he likes to supplement his allowance by opening up a lemonade stand. On a good afternoon, he’ll make somewhere between $20 and $40. On a bad afternoon, he’ll also get an earful. On NPR’s Marketplace, his mother, personal finance writer Helaine Olen, described how some of his customers have taken to hectoring the lad. “They argue with me,” Jake says. “They keep asking me to give the money to charity.” Philanthropy certainly applauds charitable giving, but let’s not lose sight of the difference between business and benevolence. The nonprofit sector is dependent, both logically and morally, upon profit-making activity. Good luck to young Jake, whose little lemonade stand bears witness to the truth of Adam Smith’s observation: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Greeks Bearing Gifts?

Peter Nomikos recently launched a new nonprofit, Greece Debt Free. Its goal: to buy and retire Greek bonds, using funds contributed by individual citizens and corporations. Nomikos is a 33-year-old Princeton graduate and the heir to a considerable shipping fortune. (His family is known for its philanthropy; after a devastating earthquake struck Santorini in 1956, Peter’s grandfather paid for much of the island’s reconstruction.) As of late June, reports the Wall Street Journal, his efforts had yielded about €230,000—mostly from friends and family—an insignificant fraction of the approximately €300 billion in Greek sovereign debt. Nomikos is nevertheless confident that his fellow Greeks will rally to the cause. (“Greeks are terrible citizens,” he told the Journal, “but exceptional patriots.”) Given the manifest failures of the Greek state, Nomikos has undertaken a labor best described as Herculean. Philanthropy hopes against hope that his trials will not prove Sisyphean.

Where’s the Love?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently released “How America Gives,” a ranging survey of the geography of American charitable giving. It’s an impressive resource. Using individual tax records from IRS public-use files, the Chronicle compared states, cities, and groups by their charitable giving as a percentage of “discretionary income”—which they calculate by subtracting from household income their estimates of what people in particular zip codes pay for housing, food, taxes, home heating, clothing, transportation, health care, child care, even such things as cleaning supplies. (These adjustments move people in expensive cities and lower income groups up higher in this ranking of generosity.) The findings affirm earlier studies: as a percentage of income, the most generous group of Americans is the lower middle class; tax incentives affect philanthropic activity; religious belief and practice correlate strongly with charitable giving. The latter observation appears forcefully in the rankings. Of the ten most generous states, eight were in the Bible Belt. The other two have large Mormon populations: Idaho and Utah. Indeed, Utah ranked as the most generous of the 50 states—and Salt Lake City, the most generous city in America.

David Gundlach, RIP

David Gundlach must have enjoyed a good surprise. In 2009, he met with Pete McCown, president of the Elkhart County Community Foundation in northern Indiana. The insurance-company founder indicated that he wanted to leave a bequest to the community foundation. Only after a heart attack took the 56-year-old’s life did it become clear what he meant. Gundlach left the foundation $125 million, with virtually no strings attached. (“Kiddo,” he reportedly told McCown, “as I understand, your foundation exists to do good in my hometown. Seems to me your organization is better qualified to make those decisions than I am.”) It’s an amount that will increase the organization’s annual giving tenfold. Even his 94-year-old mother was shocked. “I knew he was taking care of himself and not borrowing from me,” she told a local television station, “but I had no idea he was that successful.” We live in a remarkably philanthropic nation, and yet, as David Gundlach has proven once again, the generosity of individual Americans still has the power to inspire, to captivate, and—yes—to surprise.