Last June, I criticized “The Slate 60” for treating every philanthropic dollar the same. I was appalled to find the Slate 60 citation that winemaker Robert G. Mondavi had dropped $20 million on the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in his hometown of Napa, Calif., only a click away from the news that Ron Burkle, Ted Fortsmann, and John Walton gave $30 million to the Children’s Scholarship Fund for low-income children.
This overemphasis on raw dollars implies some sort of equivalence between these acts of generosity, when we know the Mondavi gift shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the one from Burkle et al. One gift advances the giver’s personal interests, the other addresses a pressing social need.
Precisely because not all donations are of the same equal public virtue, I composed a formula to correct the Slate 60’s raw-number bias and measure the true philanthropic spirit of big gifts. The rise of a new superwealthy class makes such a list all the more imperative. As Harvard sociologist Francie Ostrower points out in her book Why the Wealthy Give, the rich automatically assume that the government will take care of the poor, so they give to the arts and prestigious schools to confirm their membership in the cultured elite.
But if giving—like hemlines—can follow fashion, we must convince the new millionaires that gifts that save lives are more fashionable than gifts that build art galleries. And I write this as an unapologetic art lover who has spent many more hours in opera houses, concert halls, and museums than in homeless shelters.
The concept behind the original Slate 60—that a status list that praised philanthropists might encourage more philanthropy—was and remains laudable. But praise can only get you so far. Now it’s time for some shame. The Slate 60 Huffington Virtue Remix docks all givers of self-aggrandizing, pointless, and redundant gifts. And it rewards all philanthropists whose gifts are selfless, humanitarian, and desperately needed.
A Note on Methodology
1) Minus 10 percent for investing in buildings, not people. Let’s discourage philanthropists who give money to a $100 million war monument while the veterans of that war go homeless and hungry.
2) Minus 10 percent if these buildings are additions to already well-endowed institutions.
3) An additional 5 percent off for buildings on Ivy League campuses or affiliated with a prestigious museum like the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim.
4) Subtract another percentage point if the receiving institution’s endowment fund is bigger than the GDP of the poorest 100 countries. Mitigating factor: Add 3 percent if the gift creates a scholarship fund for disadvantaged kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend the well-endowed college.
5) Minus 15 percent if the gift goes to a building named after you or a loved one, with an additional 2 points off for “serial naming.” A. Alfred Taubman is such a serial offender. His $30 million gift to his alma mater resulted in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, which joins the A. Alfred Taubman Health Care Center, and the Taubman Medical Library. If Taubman likes seeing his name so much, a more charitable use of that $30 million would be for him to give $10,000 to 3,000 different homeless people on the condition that they change their names to Taubman.
6) Twenty percent off for “self-referential giving” directly connected to your business interests—as in the case of the aforementioned Robert G. Mondavi, chairman of Robert Mondavi Winery, who so far has given $40 million to the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Here is the Huffington Virtue Remix capsule review of that donation: “Cheeky and vainglorious, with strong notes of venality and a hint of disingenuousness.”
7) Three percent off for giving that enhances sex lives rather than saves lives. For example, Alan Greenberg of Bear Stearns gave $1 million to provide Viagra to less affluent impotent males, a k a “Bucks for Boners.”
8 a) Seven percent off for making a gift that requires others to fund unnecessary things, such as the donation of $60 million by Steven Ferencz Udvar-Hazy to build a National Air and Space Museum annex. The bill for the complex, which will house historic airplanes, is $173 million, which means somebody will have to raise another $113 million for this needless thing. Thanks, Steven! (Incidentally, Udvar-Hazy is president of International Lease Finance Corp., the leading commercial aircraft owner and lessor—see “self-referential giving” above.)
8 b) Two percent off for giving to “black hole causes.” See the $50 million attempt by Josephine Clay Ford, Richard Manoogian, and A. Alfred Taubman (yes, him again) to turn Detroit into a cultural hotbed. That sort of money could have bought a lot of hot meals.
9) A sliding scale of demerits based on the age of the donor—the “What Took You So Long?” factor. A flat 20 percent off for donors in their 90s; 15 percent off for donors in their 80s; 10 percent off for donors in their 70s. See Elmer E. Rasmuson’s $50 million donation to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art on the occasion of his 90th birthday party. Did he really think when he was 80 that he might have a $50 million emergency in the next few years?
10) Twelve percent off for gifts that win the donor huge tax write-offs, especially donations of stock or expensive paintings to museums. Nobody should get a tax break for cleaning house.
11) Seven percent off for giving on the Installment Plan, à la Ted Turner’s $1 billion donation to the United Nations, which is being paid out over 10 years, like a lotto prize. You get the instant PR bump, but earn interest on your capital while doling your “gift” out.
(Formulated in consultation with the Rev. Jim Wallis, who is spearheading “The Call to Renewal,” a national effort to abolish poverty.)
1) A 15 percent bonus for giving that focuses on poverty.
2) An extra 5 percent bonus for gifts that encourage self-sufficiency (job-training programs or partnerships with businesses that provide jobs).
3) Another 10 percent for giving to preschool and K-12 education, where the crisis is, not to higher education where the prestige and the big bucks already reside.
4) A 10 percent bump for giving that immediately alleviates suffering: food assistance, shelter, child care, health care, and safer neighborhoods.
5) Five percent for giving to grass-roots, community-based projects that turn lives around and operate on a hand-to-mouth budget.
6) A 7 percent bonus for providing seed money to worthwhile projects that inspire matching donations.
7) Six percent for replicating successful anti-addiction or poverty-reduction projects.
8) A 15 percent bonus if the giver donates his time along with his money.