Would you like to name a bat species this holiday season for a family member or friend, securing their immortality? — Purdue University News
As a closeted rich person I’m sour on vanity philanthropy. By this, I mean any kind of public display of giving: ice bucket challenges, black-tie fundraisers, dedication ceremonies for football stadiums gifted by alums, university wine and cheese parties announcing a type of bat now biologically classified as genus: Pteropus, species: Skip and Linda McTiernan.
Fundraisers, take note: you will not incentivize the hidden rich through creative levels of giving like the Seattle Aquarium’s “Oyster Catcher “($300), “Octopus Circle” ($500), “Otter Club” ($1000), “Orca Clan” ($2500), “Sound Citizen” ($5000) and “Interns are Now Coming Over to Softly Cup Your Genitals” ($10,000).1 Don’t try to be creative, don’t try to flatter us or send tote bags reading VIP DONOR. To appeal to our introverted, holier than thou, and/or paranoid dispositions, consider offering gifts of VPN subscriptions, copies of Tolstoy’s Master and Man, or a year of umbrella liability insurance.2
When I was in 8th grade, my mother, a volunteer superwoman, enlisted me to sell wrapping paper for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. While my schoolmates knocked on doors or hit up relatives, all I had to do was sit down with a list of board members and call them. Of course, they bought generously. For three years running I was a top-seller and had my picture in the paper nine times — I know this because my mother saved the clippings. I attended annual ACS dinners and when I had to stand for applause, I felt like a jerk. At no point did the actual reality of cancer enter my mind.
Many years later my father set up a family foundation after selling his business. It is called, “The Dough Foundation.” This is giving on a whole different level. Instead of giving away money as an individual, a family foundation is run as a nonprofit. It’s tax deductible and can unite a family in a common mission (say, education and literacy.) Plus, who doesn’t like learning to negotiate with siblings? By New York standards, my family’s foundation is small but in the hometown, the few hundred thousand it gives away a year is a big deal and can do a lot of good. The middle and upper rich have so much to give away they often need full-time employees to run their foundations. The more money there is to give away, the more family members may spend dealing with their responsibility. This is one of the paradoxes of being rich — the richer you are, them more it becomes kind of a job. These organizations are legally obligated to give away a certain amount of money per year. When the end of the year came around, we would often scramble to make sure that happened. When I inherited my money I was clear on one thing only — I wanted to use my time to study, read and write. I didn’t like traveling to the hometown for the meetings, didn’t feel compelled by the local-centric mission, and in some small part, didn’t like that the foundation was in our name. Not wanting to drift into being a chronic no-show, I resigned. Amazingly, even though some of my relations came from much further and had families, nobody guilt-tripped me.
Partly out of a desire to assuage my guilt, I paid special attention if I came across any religious or philosophical texts praising anonymity in giving. One of the most oft-cited texts on this subject is the levels of tzedakah (charity) written by 12th-century Jewish philosopher-physician Maimonides.3 He basically said that in moral-spiritual terms, anonymity kicks the ass of partying-for-the-cure.
Yeah, sure, but… That was 800 years ago. In a world where the posting of an Instagram of your own feet while on the toilet can yield 43 “likes,” anonymity may be a bit passé.
The exhibitionism of generosity by the mega-rich may be offensive, but is it really a sin anymore? But another reason for anonymity in giving is not so outdated: in instances where to give publicly would shame or beholden someone, it is right to give anonymously.
I confess, my impulse to write on vanity philanthropy was not to plumb the depths of my conscience. I would have found any pretense to make fun of the renaming of two of my favorite places in New York. Stephen A. Schwarzman gave 100 million dollars to renovate the main branch of the New York Public Library and it’s now called by the cozy moniker, “The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.” David H. Koch gave 65 million to restore the fountains and outdoor space flanking the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art but lest you call him a cheapskate by Schwarzman standards, he’s given to so many other New York institutions that he’s the philanthropic equivalent of Starbucks.
Opinions about the role of philanthropy tend to fall along partisan lines. If you think the government is bloated and inefficient, you’ll be happy with the Kochtopus. If you think philanthropy is the privatization of taxation, conscience-laundering4 and a circumvention of democracy, you’ll be against it, you ungrateful bastards.5 If you’re a liberal you might argue, with George Soros, that philanthropy, being more flexible and inventive, has much to teach government. And, if you’re a centrist milquetoast you’re likely to be philosophical and take the position that it has ever been thus, and even Stonehenge was probably financed by a guy who’d amassed more flint-tools than the others.
Which is not entirely untrue — why pick on Koch and Schwarzman? What about Carnegie, for instance? My answer is complicated and academic: because I can.
This is my fantasy. Picture, if you will, the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum gathered with Mr. Koch for the unveiling of the architectural model of the David H. Koch Plaza. What if, when he saw the elegant fountains his name carved into the granite facades in gold, Koch had placed his hand on his chest and said, “Really. That’s awfully nice of you, but no need to put my name on it. It was a privilege and a pleasure to help.”6 Or what if Stephen Schwarzman, when informed that the main branch of the library would be named for him, had waved his hand affably and said, “Get outta here.”7
To answer the centrist seriously about why now, why these guys, I guess I have to say that it’s because I love going to these places, and even though the Met is now spiffier and the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is more equipped to preserve books, it takes some of the joy out of climbing the front steps of either one. In a flash of an instant that is probably forgotten by the time I reach the top of the stairs, the thought-train goes: see billionaire overlord’s name, feel infantilized and beholden, blame self as ungrateful, resent the need for billionaires gifting renovations, feel shame for negativity, wonder if brought gum.
Do you note the screaming void at the center of this piece on giving, a spirit of actual gratitude and generosity? When I was a sulky teenager, all I could see was how very social and self-congratulatory charity work seemed to be. From my own lack of curiosity, I learned nothing about cancer research or what was offered to sufferers of the disease through the organization. But once, when my mom enlisted me to hang coats at an annual Blind Association gala dance party I was taken aback when a few guests approached me with their coats and I realized, holy crap, these people are blind. While writing this, I searched ACS + Dough + (my hometown) and found an old newspaper article about my mom being given the ACS volunteer award. It was named for a dear friend of hers, a woman who’d been the local chapter’s most tireless and longstanding volunteer. The award was named in her honor when she died of, it turns out, cancer. She was already dying during the years I sold that wrapping paper. She was dying in those photographs where we stood smiling, dying when she shook my hand at those honorary dinners where I had inwardly (I hope, I hope) rolled my eyes.
But now you’re going to think I’m an asshole because if I’m totally honest, I don’t want to feel like charitable activities are my obligation as a rich person. I want to be able to do with my time what I wish. I bow down to people like my mom’s friend and those doctors who risk their lives fighting Ebola. I’ve found the causes I care about, and I give to them. But I also want to trust that my tax dollars are going to the places we’ve collectively decided upon through the democratic process of one vote, one person. I want pay more taxes than most people because I’m rich. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way.8
1 “Sound Citizen?” Oh, right, the Puget Sound. But still.
2 Under no circumstances send us golf umbrellas.
3 The Levels of Tzedakah (Charity) of Maimonides:
- Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
- Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
- Giving when one knows the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know the donor’s identity
- Giving when one does not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows the identity of the donor
- Giving before being asked
- Giving after being asked
- Giving less that one should, but giving it cheerfully
- Giving begrudgingly.
5 “Loopy Liberals Freak over Koch Brothers 100M Hospital Gift,” New York Post, 3/16/14.
6 “But thank you. No, seriously, I’m not being … I’m not being modest. Seriously, and this is the god’s honest truth, 65 million dollars is like a quarter to me. All right, all right, fifty cents. I am being serious. I’m worth 47 billion dollars. Do you even know how many zeroes are in that? I think it’s, like, 9 or something.”
7 Or what if he’d sat back in his chair and rattled a pen around in his teeth for a second while the board waited to hear him announce how much he was giving the library. Breaking the silence, he said, “How about I write you a check for a cool hundred?” And, as everyone in the room nodded even though they didn’t know what amount he was actually talking about, one board member finally croaked out, “a hundred…thousand?” And then what if Schwarzman didn’t say anything, just smiled slyly and rattled the pen some more until another board member, maybe George Stephanopoulos, broke in with a low, “No.” And Schwarzman nodded at him like they were two guys in a bromance flick who’d just decided to road-trip it to Vegas. And then Stephanopoulos went, “No way. No way!! We are so totally naming this entire building after you.” And all the other board members murmured in agreement, and then maybe Stephanopoulos got up on the gleaming conference table and pointed at Schwarzman and went, “Somebody call the stonemason because we are not only carving your name into the side of the building but we are branding SAS into the hindquarters of the frickin’ lions.” More murmured assent. And then what if Stephen was joyous, teary, holding his folded his hands at his lips as if in prayer. But then what if, after a bit of this mutual admiration, he cleared his throat a little, as if to signal, “Ok, now this is getting a little uncomfortable.” And then what if he realized everyone was totally serious about renaming the main branch for him, middle initial and all and he began to argue with the board that naming the building for him was over the top. The argument continued with increasing vigor until, in the end, he was shouting, “It’s too many letters! It won’t even fit on a business envelope!” And what if they were all like, “It’s happening, Stephen. Don’t fight it.” And then what if he finally just slumped in his chair and said, “I absolutely refuse. It’s the New York Public Library, for god’s sake. I run an investment firm. Get a grip.”