Friday, November 1, 2013

Buffetted Around

Peter Buffett's op-ed  in The New York Times on July 27th - "The Charitable-Industrial Complex" takes to task those donors who want to "save the day" with little or no regard for the culture, norms or interests of those they are "helping." It's the old story of the boy scout who helps the old lady cross the street whether she wants to go or not.

Buffett has it mostly right: there is a great degree of arrogance attached to giving: the big foundations are probably the worst. They have huge staffs who keep busy by pulling the threads. Then there are the donors who are in it for the recognition. They've done well; now they'll do "good." Anyone  in this business for awhile is very familiar with both types. High self regard and philanthropy are too often joined at the wallet.

He's right in arguing that the capitalist system that he endorses has concentrated more and  more wealth in fewer and fewer hands and to grease the skids that lead to heaven they "sprinkle some of it around." True. But what's new  in this? Buffett is an unusual critic only in the sense that his father is one of the major wealth concentrators. The inequalities inherent  in our society are not exactly unknown nor starved for critical attention. 

I've often thought what I'd do if I had even as much as he has, let alone his famous father: my interests are civil rights, social action, human services and the arts more or less  in that order. I'd give only to groups about whom I knew something first hand and I promise I'd  listen carefully. And I promise that I'd measure my grants not by "ROI" but on whether they had any effect at all on whatever the organization at hand made any difference  in human betterment however defined.

This all said I have had the great  good  luck of  getting to know a few eight and even nine digit donors who were empathic, modest, smart  in their giving and above all able to put themselves in the other person's shoes.Mr. Buffett it seems has  only been at this for seven years. He has good  instincts and deep pockets. He'll make a difference.

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