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.
the peak of my career I lived in a modest mansion in an
affluent suburb of San Jose,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
- anonymous author
Activist to Businessman
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- anonymous author
Good That I Can Do
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Others and Yourself
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
was a ten-year activity that all of us looked back at
with great satisfaction.
- anonymous author
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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