More Than Money
Issue #12

Creative Giving

Table of Contents

“Interviews With Two Seasoned Commentators on Philanthropy”

Teresa Odendahl is Executive Director of the National Network of Grantmakers (NNG) and author of Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self- Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite, (Basic Books, 1990).

More Than Money: It has been ten years since you did the research for your book. Have the norms in philanthropy changed much?

Odendahl: No. The main thesis of my book still holds: that is, in much of their charitable giving, wealthy people end up funding their own interests. Most people don't realize that about half of all philanthropic dollars are donated by multimillionaires. Contrary to popular belief, more than two-thirds of private charitable giving goes not to help "the needy", but to Ivy League universities, museums, symphonies, think-tanks, private hospitals, prep schools and the like--groups that sustain the status, culture, education, and policy positions of the well-to-do.

What has changed since the book came out is that government has pulled way back in providing for basic human needs. This has put enormous pressure on private philanthropy, which will not and cannot make up the difference.

More Than Money: Are giving norms much different among the progressive individual funders you work with as Director of NNG?

Odendahl: In terms of the out- come of people's giving, absolutely. The grantmakers I work with fund social justice and environmental concerns, and programs that get to the root of social problems. However, the process of giving seems to be quite similar. The majority of individuals still do idiosyncratic, "checkbook charity" that reflects their own particular loyalties. They give to the issues and organizations that have personally touched them, and receive the same social gratification as did their parents who may have had more traditional giving patterns.

More Than Money: What do you wish giving norms would become in the progressive community?

Odendahl: If I could wave my magic wand, people would let go of needing to pick exactly which groups get their money. Instead, they would decide how much to give overall and to what issues, and then give through intermediary foundations--the Funding Exchange, the Women's Foundations, other NNG members--who have done the thorough research needed to strategically leverage a lot of change with small amounts of money. Or they could hire their own staff to do this kind of legwork. But they would stop responding to government cutbacks by 'putting their fingers in the dike' so to speak, pouring money down the drain responding to direct mail. The crisis is real so the response needs to be thoughtful.


Waldemar Nielsen is a writer and regular contributor to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He has been an observer of the philanthropic world for over 30 years. His latest book, The Dramas of Donorship (University of Oklahoma Press ) will be available fall 1996.

Nielsen: You are writing about creative giving? I have great respect for creative givers, those who give in analytical and entrepreneurial ways, who try to identify activities that are grossly neglected or projects where the dollars they give will be multiplied. They are exerting themselves intellectually more than most givers, and making more risky philanthropic investments.

However, it is a hard to be a strategic and innovative giver rather than just a trendy one.

More Than Money: By trendy, you mean flitting from one issue to the next, rather making a long-term commitment to influencing a particular problem?

Nielsen: Yes. Seeking impact is a very worthy impulse, but limited by two things. First, when you look at the multitude of problems and opportunities in this world, it is not easy to judge competently what approach is better than others.

Secondly, in the conversations I have with innovative givers, I am disturbed by their attitude of disrespect for those who give to traditional causes. I don't think that's right. The established hospital that gives care to poor mothers may not be glamorous, but let's not dismiss it as unimportant.

More Than Money: How would you describe more traditional giving?

Nielsen: In most cases, people's motivations for giving are personal and emotional, not intellectual. Some give out of deep attachment to their alma mater or their church, or a deep interest in, say, the natural environment or their local community. Others are motivated by the biblical injunction simply to help those in need. "Creative" givers may criticize this kind of giving as old-fashioned or unstrategic, but we need to respect the deep beliefs and connections it comes from. We need to value human diversity: some people are moved by art, others by education, some by science, some to help the needy, and all these deserve respect.

If you look at U.S. giving, the Salvation Army ranks right at the top. As a nation we seem to believe that those of us that are relatively well off have a duty to help the less fortunate. Giving to the Salvation Army may not be that imaginative or entrepreneurial, but is a large element of total giving in the U.S. I'm not one to dismiss that as inconsequential or out-of-date.

More Than Money: How would you change giving norms, if you had the power to do so?

Nielsen: The biggest problem is that so many multimillionaires--such as the famed Forbes 400--don't give, or give so damn little. It's a disgrace, a reflection of selfishness and a failure to recognize social obligation.

Holding onto excess wealth may be a deep and old human pattern, but it's a false and selfish way to live your life. Sure, keep whatever millions you think you need for security--but then, give yourself and your family the pleasure, dignity, and honor to give away the rest. Don't wait until your deathbed.


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