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Whose Philanthropy Is It Anyway?

September 05, 2008

(Mary McGrail is director of communications for the Brooklyn-based Independence Community Foundation, a private independent foundation that focuses on community development, education, arts and culture, and economic and workforce development issues in the New York metropolitan area. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Macon_library_2Mainstream media coverage of philanthropy often seems confined to eye-popping individual charitable donations, society gala events, "whimsical" bequests, or sponsor plugs on PBS.

Unfortunately, these public narratives don't offer a full picture of the complex, engaged, and ever-changing world of charitable giving. Which is a shame, because more in-depth media coverage of foundations -- and the nonprofit world -- could lead to greater transparency about the inner workings of our sector. It could also lead to greater awareness of what philanthropy routinely accomplishes and even spur more broad-based "grassroots" giving by individuals and communities to projects and organizations they care about. What's more, in this election year, a reasoned, wide-ranging dialogue about the role of philanthropy in generating new approaches to seemingly intractable problems would be a welcome addition to the civic debate. But how can a vigorous conversation occur if the all-too-infrequent philanthropy news story rarely ventures beyond the obvious or sensational?

I'm not saying philanthropy doesn't make headlines now and then. News of Leona Helmsley's bequest in memory of her dog, the aptly named Trouble, is a recent example: According to an article in the NY Times, "[Helmsley's] instructions, specified in a two-page 'mission statement', are that the entire trust, valued at $5 billion to $8 billion and amounting to virtually all her estate, be used for the care and welfare of dogs...."

Reaction was swift, and mostly negative. The "Maltese bequest" became a stand-in for all giving: Writing in the Times, Boston College law professor Ray Madoff explained how Helmsley's bequest "rubs our noses in the tax deduction for charitable gifts and its common vehicle, the perpetual private foundation. Together these provide a mechanism by which American taxpayers subsidize the whims of the rich and fulfill their fantasies of immortality."

But is that really the case? And what about other questions raised by Madoff's piece? Questions like, What should be funded publicly and what privately? When is enough too much? And who decides? More people need to weigh in on these and other issues. The role of philanthropy in society is an important -- even crucial -- topic for public debate, and I'd love to see the day when strongly held opinions about it are as common as opinions about the war in Iraq, sex education in the schools, climate change, or Paris Hilton.

But there are other stories, good stories, out there. My question is: Where is the press?

For example, Professor Madoff might have trouble (no pun intended) referring to the Buy a Book for Macon Library Campaign as something that serves "the whims of the rich." The idea for the innovative campaign was jointly hatched by Independence Community Foundation executive director Marilyn Gelber and Dionne Mack-Harvin, director of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The campaign began with a $50,000 challenge grant to the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant. ICF matched every dollar raised in the community to purchase the book collection for the century-old library's first African American History Center. Local donations quickly poured in, so Independence raised the "Buy a Book" challenge to $100,000. In all, more than 500 people from the neighborhood -– kids, store owners, writers, readers, church members, activists, parents, artists, and practically anybody who had ever dropped in to the library -- contributed. Over 80 percent of the donations were for less than $150. By the end of the campaign, the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant had raised over $100,000 for their library, for a total of $200,000, and the library was able to add 15,000 new volumes to its bookshelves. In this instance, at least, people doing good even made the news.

The question is, How do we get the mainstream media to pick up more stories like this? And how do we convince the media that, in these troubled times, man bites dog isn't the only story people care about?

Your thoughts?

-- Mary McGrail

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Posted by Valerie Cihylik  |   September 07, 2008 at 09:33 AM

I think not-for-profits bear some of the responsibility for the skewed media coverage. I support a bunch of organizations, from AIDS research to Community Theater groups. The one thing they all seem to have in common is the way they communicate to me, a small-time contributor: They send me newsletters filled with photos from exotic gala fundraisers that I could never afford to attend and that I have not an iota of interest in.

I am interested in the programs they support. I am interested in how funds are raised beyond the big donors. I am interested in ways an individual like me (with very limited disposable income, but a little time) can perhaps get involved. But most of the organizations I support (large and small) tend to ignore all of that.

Of course, the media is far more interested in what people are wearing to charity fundraisers rather than what the organizations are actually doing.

Posted by Shawna Mullen  |   September 13, 2008 at 03:52 PM

Thanks, Mary for a great, thought-provoking piece. You raise questions we all need to pay more attention to: how can we attain social justice with so little media diversity and media justice? How can we raise awareness of the ripple effect of everyday philanthropy and what that effect means to the health of the community?

Krista Tippett's show "Speaking of Faith" (American Public Media) would be a great forum for taking this topic to a wider group for discussion--I'd love to hear more.

Posted by R.H.S.  |   October 17, 2008 at 07:38 PM

You raise some good issues, especially given such euphemistically over-charged (and functionally under-powered) samaritan and philanthropic notions as the "Thousand Points of Light" promoted in the past by George H.W. Bush. People sometimes proclaim that private giving should replace governmental programs, but too often what is absent is any real discussion about the meaning and structure of philanthropy.

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