More Than Money
Issue #23

Partners in Social Change

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

Coming Full Circle

When I was sixteen years old, I was nearly stabbed to death while defending a friend in a gang-related street fight in my neighborhood in Hoboken, New Jersey. Longing to get away from this life, I sold marijuana and gambled to finance my way through college. Finally, an unexpected break came when a family friend assisted my getting into podiatric medical school. This was the "seize the day" moment I had always dreamed about. Prosperity was finally on the horizon.

At the peak of my career I lived in a modest mansion in an affluent suburb of San Jose, California, sporting two Mercedes, and pulling down well over a million dollars a year as a highly respected foot surgeon. My friends and colleagues didn't have a clue about my humble beginning and violent past. Yet, I still felt driven to bury my past deeper and deeper by chasing after awards, public recognition, and ever-increasing wealth. "Success" was everything to me.

Success, however, never resolved my inner problems. Ten years ago, after several bouts of depression, ill-health, and a growing estrangement from friends, family, and colleagues, my life came crashing down. A string of lawsuits, a debilitating back injury, and a pinched nerve in my hand ended my capacity as a surgeon. Ultimately, I decided to close down my practice rather then undergoing the risks of surgery that specialists claimed would restore me to my lucrative practice. I was moved by some inner force to create a new life for myself and my family and reevaluate the very purpose of my existence.

I spent my newly found freedom being close with my family, reading, keeping a journal, writing haiku poetry, practicing yoga, painting watercolors, teaching myself to play the saxophone, and writing a book on my spiritual awakening. I began to heal and enjoy my life again. Yet, there was still something missing.

My back and hand injury gave me the opportunity to experience the health profession from the other side. Before I had hidden behind a white coat and name tag, keeping my professional distance. Now, as a patient-someone suffering as do other people--I started to feel compassion again for what theologian Matthew Fox calls "the invisible members of society"--the sick, the poor, the disabled, the dying, the voiceless, the politically oppressed, and the despised.

Around this same time, Guy Nakatani, a young gay Asian-American man with AIDS, came to my son's middle school to educate kids and parents about how to avoid high risk behavior. This was his mission before he died and his bravery and commitment moved me. Soon after meeting Guy, I started volunteering with an underground needle exchange program for IV drug users in Santa Clara County.

For five to ten hours every month for over five years, I went into seedier neighborhoods of San Jose handing out condoms with AIDS pamphlets, and exchanging clean hypodermic needles for dirty needles turned in by street addicts. Most of my volunteer teammates were convicted felons, recovering alcoholics, and ex-drug addicts. This put me face-to-face with the culture I had run away from, a culture light years away from my quiet affluent suburb of Saratoga, but where I felt comfortable even though I was the only millionaire in the group. My working-class, teenage street smarts and survival skills were assets in this work. My two lives were becoming more integrated.

This has continued. A couple of years ago, I read an article in the San Jose Mercury News about two fellows who were attempting to open a state legalized medical cannabis dispensary for AIDS, cancer and glaucoma patients here in San Jose. Instinctively I wrote at the top of the page, "Help these guys!" I soon became the center's administrative medical director, working almost full-time for one dollar a year.

Jesse, Peter, and I were an unlikely trio. They were both gay Latinos with life-threatening illnesses, living on disability; I was a straight white guy with bucks. Nonetheless, we developed a tight bond of trust because of our common vision. In this work, I was able to draw on my street savvy, my skills in medical administration and fundraising, and my government and community contacts developed as a prominent surgeon, businessman and philanthropist. Unfortunately, after about a year of service I grew disenchanted with the way the dispensary was being run and I tendered my resignation. Six months later they were forced to close down by the City of San Jose--which had publicly supported them--due to a number of alleged illegalities including fiscal improprieties.

Ram Dass once said: "It's hard to do good," pointing out that even service has its pitfalls and we should be prepared for some unhappy endings. Still, I've gained much from this work. In spite of the way things ended, I've finally learned to value my past, and have stopped hiding my working-class background from my upper-class friends and acquaintances. Nor do I hide my wealth from my working class or poor friends either. They all know that my wife and I live in a stately home and support many different nonprofit groups. While it has been painful for me, I have also been open with my children about my past-- about my street fighting, gambling, smoking and dealing marijuana--and about supporting the controversial projects I believe in. I guess you could say I have come full circle.

The lie of my life is over, and while some of my friends have felt uncomfortable about my choices over the last several years, I haven't lost or dropped any of them. I've just expanded my circle of friends wider and wider to include artists, musicians, poets, working-class activists, street people, and volunteers from all classes. I am fortunate to live as a complete human being now, at peace with my past and present, and excluding no one on the basis of the artificial barriers that have haunted my life for so long.

- anonymous author

From Activist to Businessman

After years of being driven crazy by watching the peace and environmental groups I worked with scrounge for money, I did something I never thought I'd do--I became a successful businessman in order to have money to give away to groups whose work I admire.

The plan worked. I turned my geology hobby into a successful company that sells minerals and fossils to museums and stores throughout North America. During the last ten years, I've held my living expenses to $15,000 a year and given over $1 million in donations to grassroots groups around the world working on environmental protection. This year, I'm giving less than my usual $100,000 so I can reinvest more of the profits into a new division that promises to become a major profit center. My hope is that reducing my giving this year will dramatically increase my giving in the near future. It is a trade off, but I think a better one than reducing my giving to buy a 60-foot yacht or a second home.

I feel a great urgency about this work. I appreciate people who give to local bike paths or to groups protecting open space, but protecting the environment is not just a local or national concern. Paradoxically, the successes of the U.S. environmental movement have increased the "export" of destructive environmental practices to developing regions of the world. I thus believe that we must refocus a substantial portion of our efforts internationally. It is becoming clear that, to protect the global environment from collapse, it is essential to mobilize grassroots public opinion and democratic action all over the world. This may all sound like a bunch of buzz words, but I'm convinced that it is true.

I make my contributions through the Caribou Fund, which I started as an offshoot of my company, as well as Global GreenGrants which I helped start in order to work with other environmental funders. We try to find knowledgeable, honest people throughout the world, people who really know what is happening in their region, and then let them make the actual funding decisions for their countries. My decision is whether I trust the intermediaries. The intermediaries' decision is who gets the money.

We don't interfere or have elaborate reporting requirements. When I was an activist, I saw groups create projects that weren't really needed just to please the rigid guidelines of a funder. I don't want to encourage that. Such an approach is anathema to some funders. They say it is important to be hands-on, to push for ever greater accountability, and to decide ahead of time exactly what people should do with the money. All of that seems paternalistic to me. I give to people I trust and then get out of the way. After my years as an activist, I've learned to trust the wisdom and integrity of those doing the actual work and I don't want to be in the position of second-guessing them.

If I'm a partner in social change, I'm a silent partner! I hardly ever do site visits. I rarely meet my grantees. What, I need to be thanked personally? Frankly, that is just not the point of my giving. My point is to support dozens of creative people around the world. I enjoy my business most days, but it just wouldn't be worth the effort if generating the money to support this work wasn't the payoff.

- anonymous author

Any Good That I Can Do

For years, I have carried a piece of paper in my wallet with a quote that says: "I shall pass through this world but once. If therefore, there is any good that I can do, or any kindness that I can show, let me do so now, for I shall not pass this way again." I try to live my life accordingly. If this results in "social change" or serving the "common good," I'm glad. But it's what I need to do to feel alive.

A few years ago, at the age of 53, I learned to skydive and bungee jump. For me, giving and volunteering is equally exhilarating. Whether it is getting to know a local child who has cancer and helping her parents cover her expenses, or working in the rain with neighbors to build a playground I've anonymously funded, or giving substantial funds for mental health research, this is what I love. Recently, I've become interested in "strategic philanthropy," giving that supports start-up nonprofits that push for significant social change. Devising a giving strategy has become more important to me now that my marriage has ended and I have complete control over $75 million in liquid assets. I plan to die broke, so I'll be busy for the rest of my life giving the money away creatively.

Currently, I'm getting my feet wet by focusing my "riskier" philanthropy in nonprofit projects in which I'm directly involved. For example, I'm actively involved five days a week with an organization which is devoted to educating the public about issues related to the diversity of family life. I admired the vision of the two directors of this nonprofit when I first heard about it, and immediately contacted them to get together for a chat. Working there has been very exciting, but as I became more and more involved with the organization, I worried that the directors didn't have enough "business sense." Well, business sense is something I've developed over the years by working on numerous boards and learning from my former husband who made his money on Wall Street.

The trick was how to offer my expertise in a way that was useful, not controlling. As their major funder, I could have told them what "should" be done differently with an implied threat that Santa Claus would leave town if they didn't do what I wanted. But that hardly seemed helpful. Instead, in addition to my work and general financial support, I offered to pay for them to attend a nonprofit management conference. They took me up on the offer, and came back filled with ideas for how to strengthen their organization. I was then able to help them achieve their own self-defined goals without imposing my own agenda on them. They now have a financial plan, paid staff, and a well-functioning board.

One of the biggest challenges I've faced in trying to be a good partner in these kinds of projects is figuring out how much to give. I have very deep pockets and could pay for everything. One of my goals is to help organizations feel relaxed about their funding so they can focus on their program work without having to continually scramble for funds. Yet, having only one major funder can be unhealthy for an organization, and cutting too big a check can be disorienting for a group. After receiving a gift beyond your wildest dreams, it's easy to think that all your problems are solved and you don't need to give careful thought to building your organization anymore.

How do I find the right balance with each of the groups I fund? This is part of the joy and challenge when you are trying to give away as much money as I am.

- anonymous author

Respecting Others and Yourself

In 1970, I was president of a management consulting firm for community agencies and nonprofit institutions. By then, my wife had inherited money from her father and I had quietly taken myself off the payroll in order to work more with underfunded community groups. My firm also did a lot of work with foundations and had some as clients, so we were pretty steeped in that world too. It was with knowledge of this diverse background that an elderly woman friend in New York City called me with a request. She wanted to place all of her assets beyond those necessary to support herself into a foundation. Would I be its volunteer president and help her develop it?

She was a highly perceptive and intelligent woman. What did she want to do with that money? I flew to New York and we talked it out. Three million dollars was not a lot of money. We would have to bring it to focus, what were her interests? The answer came quickly: to improve the quality of life for Indian people.

That day we talked out and developed some basic policies. I had already had some Native American clients, and knew the need and opportunity was now. So why not spend all the income AND assets of this modest-sized foundation in ten years rather than going the usual foundation route of spending only income plus perhaps a small percentage of endowment? Besides, I said, hopefully you will still be here for those ten years and you can have the fun of seeing this work.

We then recruited a board, and the board members agreed to a further policy: we would make grants only to projects proposed and controlled by American Indian tribes and organizations. Foundations were wary of doing that back then. Grants to University programs, missionary schools or child care programs were fine, but we wanted to transfer the power of money. The young generation of incipient leaders was teaming up with their grandparents in wanting to turn back to the pride of their tribal roots and culture. They had things they wanted to do: we wanted to help give them the chance.

What made our funding partnerships work was listening carefully and establishing relationships of mutual respect. We, on the board had to open ourselves to new cultures with a view of humanity's relation to land and nature which was the inverse of that of the predominant American culture. Most of our board members, progressive and liberal as they might be, lived in the Eastern, urban culture. We had to learn to trust the instincts of the Native leaders we worked with.

And, yes, sometimes pushing for mutual respect meant standing up for our own humanity. I remember one time an Indian activist from Wisconsin set up an appointment to see me in my Chicago office and brought two friends with him. To his friends, I seemed like the enemy--just another white business-man sitting in a plush office. These two guys were rude and argumentative. Finally I stopped them and said, "Hey, hold on. You asked to see me. Can we just talk about what you want and how I might help?" It turned out the two newcomers didn't know their friend had asked for the meeting. They thought I had called them in and wanted to fit them into my agenda. If I hadn't pushed back, this misunderstanding might never have been cleared up and we would never have gotten anywhere.

Did the Akbar Fund's strategy work? Well, among our grantees to which we gave early, startup grants: The Quinaults went on to strengthen their tribal government and stopped the destruction of their forests and fisheries. The Ramah Navajo and the Wind River communities established their own Indian controlled schools and later joined similar Indian projects in creating the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards as a national advocate for their interests. The Crow and Cheyenne successfully overturned their unfair coal leases and began resource development under tribal control. The Penobscot and Passamoquoddy recovered 300,000 acres of their land and the Menomonee even secured Congressional restoration of both their tribal government and their reservation. And gradually other foundations began to make similar grants to support indigenous leadership and their projects.

It was a ten-year activity that all of us looked back at with great satisfaction.

- anonymous author

Use Every Resource

Val: Mine is the standard inheritor's story. The small insurance company run by my grandfather, and then my father, merged with a larger corporation and its value skyrocketed. My father gave us gifts of stock while he was alive and we inherited much more when he died. Since then, due to the company's lucrative investments, the stock value has just kept growing.

Pete: My parents were both Episcopal missionaries and generosity towards the poor was a value I grew up with at home. Having wealth has offered us many opportunities to give. Yet, over the years, our vision has increasingly focused on biblical justice, not on charities which never challenge concentrated wealth or power.

Val: This commitment grew slowly for me. Like Pete, I learned early that giving is important, but, as a teenager and young adult, I never questioned whether our society needed to be fundamentally changed. I was 45 or so, and a housewife and mother, before I became committed to working for change. Happily, this coincided with our having significant wealth to work with.

Pete: I guess I started out as more "activist" than Val. I studied the "Social Gospel" in seminary during the 1950s, worked in campus ministry through the 1960s--a period of intense student activism-- and became active myself in the civil rights and peace movements. I was also deeply inspired by the development of liberation theology and the Christian Base Community movement in Latin America during the 1970s. I think what finally got Val and I working together as partners in social change were the annual trips to Latin American we began taking in 1985 as part of a church-to-church companion program. We have never been the same since.

Val: Now don't get us wrong. We give to the Church, colleges, arts groups, and social service agencies like most folks, but now our main funding goes to economic justice efforts, community development and alternative financial institutions. We have been very involved in the social change philanthropy movement, especially with the Wisconsin Community Fund and the Funding Exchange. I love that the grantmaking committees of these Funds are staffed primarily by community activists, so that the money is giving people without wealth the joy and responsibility of philanthropy.

Pete: We offer more than just our money, though, as we each have a lot of free time available. We've both served as active volunteers and board members for Latin American solidarity groups. I even sat on a funding committee of the Wisconsin Community Fund as an activist for a time. Val, who studied accounting back in the 1970s, has offered her financial skills to groups for years. She's been particularly active as a donor, volunteer, and investor with an organization which provides micro-credit loans in Nicaragua and she helped organize a community loan fund in our town.

Val: This last effort grew out of my personal interest in accounting and investing. This got me wondering if there was a way to make our assets--and not just our giving--contribute to the kind of world we wanted to create. The easiest part was moving our own investments into securities with more socially responsible corporations than we had been invested in before. However, to go any deeper, we had to struggle with the question of how much is enough? What do we really need for ourselves and our family? Determining this enabled us to increase the portion of our portfolio reserved for lower-than-market rate, high-impact investments through community credit unions and revolving loan funds to one third of our assets. Making our principal work for change, not just our donations or our work as activists, has felt great.

Pete: We strive to use every resource we have in the service of building a just and peaceful world. We are careful, however, not to neglect ourselves or our family. We make time for sports, reading, travel, and visits with our children and grandchildren.

Getting sufficient rest is a priority for both of us-- especially as we age. On my bulletin board I've posted a quote from Saint Teresa: "Do not pursue so much as to catch nothing." I think that this is a good reminder that in God's wisdom we are not God! Still, it is a joy to lead a purposeful life aimed at creating the kind of world we believe God wants us to create. That is why it is so satisfying to use every gift we have in every way we can imagine.

Val: Sometimes it would be easier to take on just one role or another, though. I want to be known most as a person with the energy and capacity to help found, direct, and run social change organizations, but sometimes being a donor and an unpaid volunteer can be confusing. I wonder if I am valued for my knowledge and skills, or only for the checkbook in my purse? What is behind people's flattery? I've decided I'll never know for sure how I'm perceived, so I just keep making my full contribution. I've had to learn to trust that I'm having an impact as an activist above and beyond my being a donor or investor.

Pete: The biggest challenge I find is being able to see the many possible opportunities for making a difference that exist all around us everyday. For example, Val and I are empty nesters and want to move out of our big house. That's an opportunity that we might have overlooked if someone hadn't offered a workshop in our area about "co-housing." Co-housing is where a group of people get together to buy property and build or renovate individual housing units along with a common community building and other shared amenities. We thought this would be a great idea to pursue and, because of our organizing experience and financial resources, we became the developers of a small co-housing project near downtown Madison.

Everybody involved contributes time and money, of course, but we are covering enough costs and using our free time so that working people from the neighborhood can afford to buy into the project. We've got to live somewhere, right? So the only question for us is how can we fulfill this need in a way that helps build a stronger community. If all goes as planned, we'll move in to our unit this summer.

- anonymous author


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