The pH factor: Givers need philanthropic humility

Marvin Olasky
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Posted: Jul 21, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Rich hunters offsetting the costs of their African safaris by donating mounted heads of exotic animals to a Nebraska museum and claiming huge tax deductions. A Tennessee foundation created to improve education among the poor paying its director several million dollars. A tax-exempt hospital charity in Minnesota sending employees on trips to Hawaii and Grand Cayman Island, and executives on a three-day wine tour of Napa Valley to help them find their "moral center."
 
Those are some of the stories that emerged from a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing this spring on charitable giving abuses. Committee Chairman Charles Grassley concluded, "It's time for comprehensive reforms to shut down personal enrichment at the needy's expense." He's right, but the arrogance of government and foundation officials at the needy's expense is an even greater problem.

 Today, many public and private philanthropic wannabes ignore the bonds of attachment that churches and other religious groups have built in inner cities, and instead rely on gossamer cords cut from parachutes of dropped-off activists. Newly minted Ph.D.s in giving-ology tend to say: Don't just sit there, create a new program. It would be much better to say: Don't just do something, watch what some sacrificial, inner-city folks with faith already are doing -- probably in a part-time and under-equipped way -- and then help them do more.

 Most organizations should be pro-active, but philanthropists concerned with poverty should deliberately be reactive, learning from the efforts of ordinary folks who tired of looking the other way as their communities fell apart. Watching and waiting requires philanthropic humility. It's ego-gratifying for philanthropists or Washington officials to be the producers of "American Idol," jump-starting the careers of winners. It's harder to wait and let a community choose its own leaders. But the rich and powerful, instead of making selections, should concentrate on certifying and helping those who are already doing the job.

 Anything new about that process? Not really: It's how good churches select elders -- by seeing who already is a leader, counselor and dispenser of wisdom, and then certifying that person. A group that comes to a center of wealth as the Scarecrow or Tin Woodsman approach the Wizard of Oz, asking for a brain or a heart, is not a group worth supporting. A group that already has a brain and a heart can benefit from the Wizard's endorsement. Rich contributors can add to what's already there, perhaps oiling tin joints, but they cannot give anything new. They especially cannot give courage, which is a quality inescapably demanded for effective poverty-fighting.

 It will be hard to reverse the pattern of foundation and governmental over-activism, and to teach philanthropists to aspire to at most an Oscar for best supporting actor. Organizations will need to learn more about the importance of fighting both kinds of poverty, spiritual and material. Then they will need to find out how and what to give in a way that doesn't leave a struggling group undersupplied but also doesn't give it more money than it can handle. Call it the pH factor, for philanthropic humility: too much money given to a worthy recipient can be acidic, but too little can be alkaline.

 The Senate Finance Committee would do well to examine not only private abuses, but the off-the-charts acidity that often results when government starts dropping dollars on a project. Philanthropic humility is necessary if a giver is to do more good than harm, but it is not sufficient -- philanthropic prudence is also needed. Prudence is best learned not in classrooms, but through years of experience on the streets.

 Wise givers will rely not on new doctors of philosophy, but on veteran "doctors of streetology," as Denver's Bob Cote puts it -- those who have devoted decades to helping others. Their lives will never be air-conditioned, but bringing a cup of cold water and a fan can make a huge difference.