At a recent workshop on grantmaking in New York City, the director of a foundation endorsed keeping a “distance” between grantors and grantees. The philanthropy professionals gathered around the table seemed to nod in agreement. “I’ve never seen any good come of a friendly relation between givers and recipients,” the director said. No one disagreed.
It was up to me to break the silence. “Well, speaking for myself, I give only to my friends,” I said. Silence. A few gasps. Perhaps some of my colleagues thought I was a fool. But I had interjected a note of doubt about the director’s viewpoint and we began to debate the need or value of keeping givers and getters apart.
My comment did not refer to any preconditions that I put on giving (for example that one must already be my friend) but rather to the intention or hope behind it. And I’d wager that such a hope is not mine alone.
A sense of connection, mutuality and friendship between those who offer gifts of time and money and those who receive them is increasingly being viewed as the end of philanthropy— rather than an accidental byproduct that happens to occur. A philanthropist, after all, is by definition someone who is a friend of humankind.
Of course many other motivations play a part in giving. As the advertisers, fundraisers and television producers who deliberately showcase the sad-eyed faces of poor children already know, compassion mingled with a dollop of guilt opens pocketbooks. It hurts to see such images, and doing even a little bit ameliorates that pain.
Appeals to the principle of justice do their part as well and provide a second category of motivations. We give to causes that we think are “right.” By the same token, we may give to atone when we come to think that we have done something wrong, for example by profiting from tobacco stocks or buying sweatshop goods.
And one must never forget the power of plain vanilla self-interest. Our tax code ensures that giving benefits the giver economically. On a more subtle level, well-placed or strategic giving can help produce useful business contacts, get one’s kids into school, or even result in the letters of your name being carved into the side of a building.
These three motivations are limited, however. Giving based on guilt, political or economic value judgments can still do a lot of good in the world, but it may not satisfy another need that I personally feel and that I believe many donors have as well. That is the desire for some sort of personal or significant connection with their recipients, for what I call the philanthropy of friendship.
Such a desire is neither voyeuristic or proud. Indeed, it’s natural, as Aristotle recognized 2400 years ago. He noticed that, when people give to others, the givers seem to love the recipients more than the recipients love the givers. Aristotle wondered why this should be so. Shouldn’t recipients feel more love, since they are getting something rather than giving something up?
Aristotle resolved the question by observing that, contrary to appearances, the giver gets a lot. The philosopher argued that the recipient of another’s giving represents, in essence, “the work” of the giver. The benefactors love this “work,” the recipient, he said, more than the work/recipient “loves its maker.” Why? Because we express our identity and value—our very being—through our actions in the world. Aristotle called this acting our “being-at-work.”
Loving What We Make
The philosopher uses artists to illustrate his point. Poets love their poems, and sculptors love their sculptures, because artists live in their work. Seen in this light, givers love giving (and draw satisfaction from it) because it is an expression of being. Givers further love those to whom they give. The recipients are the givers-at-work.
Let us try to apply this to today. Let’s remove for a moment the necessary “distance” created by modern charitable funds, foundations, nonprofit service providers and charities. Let us further remove the distance created by writing and mailing a check or making a gift over the telephone or the Internet. Seen in its most elementary and classical form, as a free exchange between two parties, giving inspires a union, or at least the possibility of a union, between the giver and the recipient.
There are no recipients without givers and no givers without those who will receive their gifts. Each needs the others, as one friend needs another.
And just as true friends live, in a sense, in each other’s being—in each others’ activities, suffering, success, and failure —so too givers and recipients are in some way bound together. The cynical corruption of the Golden Rule—“he who has the gold rules”—is a lie.
But how do we approach giving in this manner? Again, friendship provides a model. We cannot “make” others our friends. Friendship has to “happen” on its own. Critically, each side must be receptive and open for this new connection to arise. A philanthropy of friendship also requires rethinking all sorts of things we take for granted in the realm of grants: power-relationships, professionalism, objectivity, accountability, etc.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides offers a helpful confirmation of this stance. Many readers mistake his famous “ladder” of types of givers as praising anonymous giving above all. True, Maimonides identifies an important role for anonymity in three of the four “best” ways to give. But the best way of all, he says, is when the giver “takes the hand” of his recipient “and gives him a gift or loan, or makes a partnership with him, or finds him employment, in order to strengthen him until he needs to ask help of no one.”
In this best way of giving, the giver does not assume that he knows best what is needed. By taking the other’s hand, and treating the recipient as an equal partner, the giver opens himself to respond to the recipient’s true needs. “Taking another’s hand” may not sound exactly professional. But it does lay the foundation for a philanthropy of friendship. ■
Albert Keith Whitaker is a research fellow at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and the director of financial and estate planning at Calibre Advisory Services, the family office unit of Wachovia Bank. Whitaker is also president of the Morton Foundation.
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