Saturday, December 30, 2006

Let's recruit board members to hold cultivation events in their virtual houses

By now you've probably heard of Second Life, the online virtual world that now has more than 2 million "residents" and rising fast. It now includes businesses which make both virtual and real-life money, houses, clubs and societies, virtual sex (of course), arts and music and filmmaking communities, GM opening a car dealership, educators opening schools, and more. Like it's own reality TV show (wait, so that's a "reality" show which is watched in a non-real universe er um....existential conundrums give me a headache).

It also has a non-profit sector. Established non-profits are extending events into Second Life, or simply exploring it and recruiting volunteers there, taking real-world fundraising events into Second Life, conducting charitable-giving drives...for all I know somebody's right now organizing Second Life's first sector conference at which the cocktail-hour chatter will be all about whether "there are too many non-profits chasing too few donors..."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The case against more gen-ops grants

NOTE: my first attempt at describing the CEP report was more truthy than accurate (see reader comments), and is now revised and hopefully better.

There are a couple of "inside baseball" type subjects which keep coming up anyplace non-profit and foundation staffs gather, regardless of what the specific conference/workshop/briefing/luncheon is actually about. One of them is evaluation (of non-profits, of projects, etc.); the other is that foundations should make more general-operating grants rather than project grants. Say the words "program grant" at any such gathering and you'll quickly be surrounded by knowing sighs and frowning head-shakes.

However the Center for Effective Philanthropy recently assembled a bunch of data suggesting that grantees are not nearly so worked up about that issue as are the foundation staffs who fret about it at conferences. The CEP also reports that a lot of foundation CEOs think that more general-operating grants would be better, although they mostly actually issue restricted grants: funding which can be used only a specific project or program.

As the CEP reports, the top reason that foundation boards prefer restricted grants is one that I find perfectly respectable: to be able to track specific outcomes of grant investments. (Foundations no less than operating non-profits are tying themselves into knots these days trying to figure out how to track and document the results of their work and not simply the amount of work they perform.) And while the CEP notes the obvious fact that grantees prefer to get unrestricted grants and hate the paperwork related to restricted grants, their main point is that non-profit directors are actually far more concerned about the length and amount of a grant than about its strings.

My own beef with this whole debate is that the relevant context is often overlooked. Foundation grants altogether are no more than one-sixth of all philanthropy in the U.S. (according to Giving USA); it would take a dozen new Gates Foundations to change that ratio significantly. The vast majority of philanthropic support for non-profits (mostly from individuals) is unrestricted. So is the large fraction of non-profit revenues (anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds depending on specific sector) that comes from earned income. Hence no more than one-tenth of non-profit revenues is actually arriving with specific strings attached. That hardly seems like a crushing burden of red tape for the hardworking executive director; and wishing that the foundations' reasons for those strings weren't necessary doesn't render them invalid.

On a side note, the CEP report includes a sidebar quoting Elizabeth Keating on the "overhead game", whose interesting proposals on that subject were described previously here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

We still have "women's boards"?

The other week I opened up a copy of Chicago's leading business newspaper and suddenly found myself warped back to 1975. At least that was the sensation caused by reading about major non-profit institutions which still maintain "women's boards" or a "women's association."

That's just, at this point in time, odd. Of course the Joffreys and Adler Planetariums and Art Institutes are in some ways kind of a league of their own -- but every institution listed in that article has long since had plenty of wealthy and/or influential women on their actual boards, including officers, including chairs. (In my Chicago non-profit career I've met several of them.) For example the Joffrey Ballet when it started a women's board only five years ago was being chaired by Pamela Strobel, then one of the top executives at Exelon. (She's since retired.) I know firsthand of similar examples in New York and Los Angeles and other cities.

A quick search does not turn up any recent empirical research about the gender composition of non-profit boards. This study from 15 years ago found that the boards of "cultural institutions" in six U.S. cities were around one-third female as of 1991, and rising. That sounds about right for that time at the big old symphonies and museums they were surveying. From my working experience in the other 98% of the sector I bet a fully-representative survey as of 2006 would put the female percentage on all non-profit boards well above 50%, and still rising.

As I think on it and read that article again there may be a generational thing at work here. The quotes from female business execs in their 40s who declined invitations to join a "women's board" ring true. (And notice that most of the women's-board members quoted or pictured are older than that.) Thinking of all the successful women I know who have served on various non-profit boards, few of whom are eligible for Social Security, I'm pretty sure that their private reactions to the idea of a women's board would not be so carefully phrased!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Non-profit growth as part of global social change

I recently observed a briefing hosted by the Carnegie Corporation at which the opening speaker was Alan Khazei. The specific subject at hand was youth development; Khazei's remarks ended up being partly about the global growth of the nongovernmental non-profit sector.

Khazei co-founded City Year, which recruits American college-age youth for a year of urban civic service (and which is now taking its service global). Via email I obtained his permission to report his remarks publicly here and he bravely didn't ask to review my notes, so all errors of interpretation are entirely mine.

He led off by applauding TIME Magazine's naming as its annual "Person of the Year", you. By that they mean the changes now being wrought by individuals acting directly instead of through institutions, of which most of their examples turn out to be young people.
(Some folks are rolling their eyes at the magazine's decision.) Khazei suggested that the magazine's choice fits well with "two of the most widespread global trends of the last half-century, the march of democracy and the explosive spread of the civic sector". Khazei cited surveys by outfits such as Freedom House and The Economist, which recently concluded that in a historic first more than half the world's population now lives under some form of democracy. (Though the latter, at least, thinks that the spread of democracy has stalled.)

Those two broad global trends, Khazei said, have been in driven by the United States' cultural influence but have now spread beyond any single society's control. And, he argued, "both of these changes depend on empowered effective citizenship and can be undone by the lack of it. There is nothing inexorable about any of this; less than 100 years ago autocracy was the world's growth sector.

Khazei's related thesis is that "everywhere around the world, people are concluding that the limit has been reached in the ability of big government to directly solve problems." Not a theory that centralized government needs to vanish, but rather that "the list of things which government can be the effective solution to has been exhausted." The social entrepeneurship idea flows from this notion, he noted. From his travels around the world he reported that "this is not at all just a Western idea, it is the consensus in the grass roots everywhere." In place of big government, he said, is the emerging idea of 'big citizenship': individual action and the civic sector as the primary drivers of positive change. "Young people are very excited by this and take naturally to it."

Foundations, Khazei argued, can play a key role at this juncture, "can help empower this. You can help build capacities and build citizenship and nurture ideas; you are uniquely placed to convene people at key moments and places." Also, Khazei said, "we've got to start making some big bets. We need in the non-profit sector the kind of dynamism that the business world now has, where half of our 20 largest corporations are less than a quarter-century old. Most of the non-profit models taken to serious scale, like the Girl Scouts and Amnesty International and United Way, are several decades or a century old."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New rules for non-profits, sort of, except not, maybe

The U.S. Treasury Department has issued new "voluntary best practices" for non-profits to ensure that they aren't being used as conduits for funding for terrorist groups. The Council on Foundations, after working to get the new federal guidance altered, now says the feds should drop the whole idea. They argue that the new procedures would impose significant administrative burdens on non-profits without much benefit because only a teeny fraction of them have ever been even accused of terrorism-related financial dealings.

Reading the entire Treasury document left me scratching my head. After nine pages of restating the blindingly obvious (charities should write down their missions?? gosh!), the feds propose a series of doublechecking practices aimed at being sure that no money is going to terrorist groups...accompanied by lengthy footnotes explaining why all that effort may not work in practice. That's it.

Those doublecheck steps do sound fairly onerous, the likely effect is that only large staffed groups would ever make grants to or hire people from outside the U.S. Would that gain a worthwhile tradeoff in making it harder for terrorists to raise money in the U.S.? I dunno, and the feds offer no data or argument about it. But anyway it's not at all clear whether this is actually required. The federal document calls it "voluntary" but the CoF says that IRS agents have questioned groups about complying with it. (How many IRS agents? How many times? Did the groups respond, and if not what happened then? They don't say.)

I'm not finding the Council's arguments on this very persuasive but the feds' approach seems incoherent. If those are to be the new rules of operating as a tax-exempt organization then let's call them rules and have a fact-driven debate about whether they make sense in practice. Perhaps a couple of large groups with staff attorneys could do a service by openly refusing to comply with these "voluntary best practices" and forcing the feds to decide whether they mean it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

That smell from the Smithsonian is not pleasant

Sitting in Chicago I'm imagining the local reaction if the Field Museum were to announce that HBO would now get "semi-exclusive" dibs on filming in its halls, or the Art Institute sold to Disney the "semi-exclusive" use of its artworks in movies. Yea that was about my response too, upon learning early this year that the Smithsonian Institution had sold a tidy piece of its soul to Showtime. The recent Government Accountability Office report on the deal is not even slightly reassuring.

Basically, the museum traded that "semiexclusive" use of its image and contents for promises of national television exposure plus some cash. The GAO found that the Smithsonian "followed its internal contracting guidelines" (whew!) and found no specific ways that the publicly-funded institution violated any laws. But it's not hard to read between the lines that the GAO staff think that the museum was dazzled by Showtime's shiny beads and sold out cheap: "The Smithsonian contends that it will be able to accommodate the same level of filming activity (outside of Showtime) as it has in the past based on its historical analysis of filming contracts. GAO found that this analysis was unreliable because it was based on incomplete data and oversimplified criteria."

And for government auditors this line is pretty scathing: "In addition, concerns have been raised about damage to the Smithsonian’s image and the appropriateness of limiting the use of the collections [which are] held in trust for the American public." What they said!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Newsweek on non-profit transparency

Newsweek lead columnist Jane Bryant Quinn's current column is preaching to this choir in general, though she's off base on some details. It's about the "budding transparency movement for public charities," and she correctly notes that the better non-profits seethe when they see less-worthy groups (let alone outright con artists) suckering well-meaning donors.

Quinn's overall point is that donors are being more and more empowered to seek out and compare real information about non-profits -- a fine thing for sure. (The true fact that as of yet the only information donors can use is about efficiency rather than effectiveness is not a reason for them to ignore it, rather it is a problem for the sector to solve.) Missing from her column is the reality that when charitable-minded folks choose not to do even minimal investigation about giving decisions, they are complicit in the inevitable bad results like 50% of their check going to a professional fundraiser rather than the cause. Hence I cringed recently upon learning that a relative blindly sends a check to every single group which sends him those pre-printed address labels -- generous in spirit but regrettable in practice. Much better for charitably-minded folks to think and act like consumers with their donation dollars.

Also, readers here know that my favorite current contributor to this sector's improvement is Charity Navigator, which I recently added to our family's list of annual donations. They unfortunately got a mild rebuke from Quinn for a really dumb reason. She thinks the fact that a GAO study claimed 64% of non-profits report zero fundraising expenses on their tax returns must mean those documents are unreliable sources of information, and since Charity Navigator collects its data from those forms she wrote that their rankings "could mislead."

Sigh. The vast majority of non-profits filing tax returns are small volunteer groups reporting zero staff or fundraising expenses for the simple reason that they have zero staff or fundraising expenses. (There are scores of all-volunteer local land trusts for every one Conservation Fund, and they all have to file a tax return if they have just $25,000 in revenues.) I guess Quinn imagined the GAO study to be claiming that two-thirds of staffed organizations reported no fundraising expenses; a shame that she couldn't have been bothered to place one phone call to the IRS or the GAO and ask one or two questions.

That laziness aside Quinn is on the mark overall, and tipped me off to a new site in the works which I think aims to be the home of Ebay-style consumer comment and reviews of non-profits. More on that after it launches.

If you can make it in Bentonville...

Environmental Defense is looking for someone to take the lead in their work to make Wal-Marts green -- from within. Joel Makower has a nice writeup of the situation at "Two Steps Forward". It sounds like they don't want someone who'd simply put a happy face on what the company does: "The ideal someone who would never have imagined moving to Arkansas."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Land conservation takes the lead

A startling report from the Land Trust Alliance is getting some national-media attention this week but I wish they hadn't buried their lede, which is that in the U.S. the permanent protection of land for conservation is now going faster than sprawl -- and pulling away.

Last month the national conservation groups were celebrating the current boom in state/local public funding for land conservation; now the LTA has pulled together national data on non-governmental activity for the same purpose. They report that just in the past five years private non-profits protected 13 million acres, equal to a new Yellowstone National Park every year.

The national conservation-advocacy groups say that new development consumes 2 million acres per year, so the nongovernmental land trusts alone are now protecting more land than is being sprawled on each year. Obviously adding the new open space protected via all those new state and local bond referenda, and the occasional addition to federal national monuments and so forth, makes the picture even better.

The LTA report does have a couple of oddities, such as that most of their charts and graphs include only state and local land trusts when national groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trust For Public Land are a huge part of all this activity. And while criticizing the drops in direct federal appropriations for conservation they ignore the fact that all that private non-profit land protection is being subsidized by the federal tax code to the tune of billions per year now. (And the increase in federal tax benefits from donating land or easements which President Bush signed into law in August will boost all this even more.)

The non-profit land trust business is, not surprisingly, booming like dot-coms in the 90s. The LTA reports that even while the number of state and local land trusts was increasing by a third, the average operating budget increased by two thirds and salaried staff increased by almost half. In just five years, during an economic downturn! And that again doesn't count the big national/international groups.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Progressive pricing of education

The New York Times seems to have just discovered, in a front-page story today, the way that private colleges price their services in the U.S.: charging families higher or lower tuition based on what they're able to pay. I'm not sure why this is news -- when I was in college the financial-aid office was perfectly candid about it.

Maybe its just the cute news angle they found, about several colleges which only woke up to the game recently and discovered that raising its tuition made it seem like a better school. So they raise the tuition by 18% and the financial-aid pool by 20% and promptly start getting more applications, because full-cost-paying families assume that a place that costs more must be better. (Or perhaps because .edu-world currently offers its customers no single quantifiable measurement of quality other than sticker price, and bitterly resists attempts to create one such as the US News and World Report rankings.)

I was surprised at just how progressive private-college pricing has become: "aid is now so extensive that more than 73 percent of undergraduates attending private four-year institutions received it in the school year that ended in 2004, not even counting loans." And I happened recently in my office to hear, from the executive director of an association of small Midwestern colleges, another point made in the article: "some students may not even apply to private colleges, scared away from the start by tuition and unaware of the available discounts." The solution to which is, of course, clueing them in to the system and the opportunity to benefit from it. (Like the first time an older relative explained to you that nobody actually pays the listed price at a used-car dealership.)

The article did quote someone raising the familiar spectre of a "squeeze of the middle class": upper-income families can pay full sticker price while poor families get lots of aid. No actual data was offered to back that up, and since the article notes that aid is offered to families earning as much as $150,000/year if they have several kids, the worry seems to depend on a rather expansive definition of "middle class". Or for that matter of "squeeze."

Other than sardonic amusement at the discomfort of certain parties with discovering that they must deal with (horrors!) market dynamics like supply and demand, I'm fine with all this. Access to the finest system of higher education on the planet is being priced in a highly progressive manner? Works for me.

Donating while bankrupt: addendum

Back in November I wondered whether it's really fair that someone who has filed for bankruptcy should be allowed to continue making charitable contributions. This tightly-reasoned piece is persuasive: it isn't. Senators Obama and Hatch should drop the idea.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Glossy magazines about giving

An interesting new blog called Tactical Philanthropy is devoted to "chronicling the second great wave of philanthropy". Blogger Sean Stannard-Stockton, who is a professional money manager and donor advisor, got my attention the other day with the news an entire new genre of glossy magazine is being established, aimed at people who do a lot of charitable giving.

At least five such magazines have either just launched or are about to:
Contribute, Good, Generocity, Benefit, and Giving. (The physical resemblances to Martha Stewart Living are, I assume, intentional.)

A quick perusal of those websites left me feeling that "Generosity" is at least as much aimed at non-profit staffers as donors. "Good" seems to have an interesting business model: send 100% of subscription proceeds to charities and pay the bills with advertisers who are after the high-disposable-income readership that is thereby attracted. "Benefit" subtitles itself "the lifestyle of giving" and appears to be basically focused on the Bay Area at least to start. "Contribute" claims to be the only one that is entirely focused on donors as its audience. "Giving", which hasn't printed an issue yet, appears to be the best-funded of these and looks like its aiming to be the biggest/slickest player in this new magazine genre.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The evil empire

Joining a foundation staff a year ago turned me from a non-profit specialist into more of a generalist as far as subject area. One subject that keeps coming up at conferences and online within the U.S. non-profit sector now is Wal-Mart.

For instance one project I'm heavily involved in at work is related to the food system, seeking to leverage a big increase in the amount of food that is grown locally and/or organically. Activists in that subject are talking a lot about Wal-Mart these days, with no clear consensus on whether on balance the company's entry into the issue is a good thing or bad. A colleague on that project who is a veteran public-health advocate mentioned one day that those folks are slightly agog over the rapid expansion of Wal-Mart's cheap generic drug offering which, if successful, seems to shake up some of the public-policy debate regarding our health care system. Pro-choice activists scored a big win early this year when the company reversed course on the morning-after pill, particularly since they sell it for far less than other pharmacies do.

On gay-rights websites there is chatter about the company's moves the last couple years on that front, as for example noted here, which is inspiring calls by religious-right groups for boycotts. And thanks to Al Gore's public endorsement of Wal-Mart as a key green change agent (which, as an aside, is my least-favorite new non-profit-sector buzzword), the company's environmental impact is getting more attention. I've seen this news article linked a few times now.

Anti-sprawl activists continue to name Wal-Mart as a poster child for unsustainable economic growth, as do labor unions. This progressive activist's research paper coming to a different conclusion gets linked a bit and the author got a couple of invitations to speak on campuses and debate online, but he's been largely ignored by the mainstream media.

And recently a friend who is heavy into the stock market noted this irony: Wall Street thinks that Wal-Mart, as a business, peaked several years ago. Its stock price hasn't even kept up with inflation for three years now and its sales growth lags well behind that of competitors like Target. As a dominant economic force it may be that the company's historical moment has, for better or worse, passed.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Online gaming to feed the world

I would really, really love to see Village: The Game succeed. That's a bit because the particular genre of computer game known as "real-time strategy" is one of my favorite forms of recreation, and even more due to wholehearted agreement with the issue being addressed and with the policy approach that the creators of the thing are applying to that issue.

I wish I could offer some optimism about the project's chances though...reading their website leaves me thinking that nobody who's actually played a lot of robust RTS games is involved. The game-design discussion on that website is all about look and feel and not at all about what actually makes such a game work or not work for real-life players today, namely its internal design and gamebalance. An analogy would be, if you're a serious movie fan, reading that the director and producer of an upcoming movie are spending all their time worrying about the costumes and makeup without any focus on the script. One of the early warning signs of a straight-t0-video outcome right?

(If you are a strategy gamer I will make a current topical analogy: thinking that what makes a computer strategy game successful is the pretty graphics and cool sounds leads to lame failures like Sid Meier's Railroads rather than completely-addictive bestselling hits like Civilization IV.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kids today! They're volunteering, a lot

A comprehensive national study has concluded that volunteerism in the U.S. is booming, including an eye-popping doubling among teenagers compared to the late 1980s. The study also found that folks aged 45 to 64 are volunteering at higher rates than their parents did at the same age, as are senior citizens.

The study's authors think that this growth is driven by "social trends such as the rise of service and service-learning in the schools, higher education levels among adults, delayed child-bearing, and longer life expectancy." I wonder if another factor isn't some maturity in the non-profit sector in terms of how well we recruit and manage volunteers. That's one of the ways in which, in my current role as a foundation officer, I am often impressed with how much smarter young non-profit staffers seem now than my age group was at the same professional level a decade or two ago.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Donor intent showdown finally underway

Oral arguments have begun in the potentially-landmark case Robertson vs. Princeton in New Jersey state court, more than four years after the suit was first filed. The heirs of a huge 1961 gift to the university have been publicly arguing for several years now that Princeton has serially violated the donor's intent; that gift has now grown into $650 million. In addition to the separation of those funds from the university's endowment, the plaintiffs are seeking restitution for endowment proceeds which they say were spent contrary to the donor's restriction and which could total hundreds of millions more.

Of all the web-accessible news coverage describing the facts of the case, that Pittsburg Post-Gazette article linked above seems the best. The Robertson plaintiffs have established a robust website for their case which of course includes only the op-ed pieces that favor their version of the situation.

Princeton's public defense, at least, was seriously damaged early this year when the Wall Street Journal went through thousands of pages of documents released as part of the court's discovery process. The reporters found memos and emails in which Princeton officials wrote frankly of hiding fund disbursements from the Robertsons, and also found evidence of two smaller gifts which appear to have been used for purposes other than those specified by the donors. The university argues that the memos were wrong and that the officials who wrote them didn't have authority over the matter. The Journal's front-page story is not web-accessible unless you're a subscriber; if you are, it ran on February 7th and was headlined "Poisoned Ivy".

The case could have a huge legal impact on philanthropy but also might not, because Princeton's legal strategy seems to open the door to a ruling that's based on any number of things. Their approach appears to be "leave no argument unturned": they dispute the plaintiffs' standing to sue, and deny that they misused the funds, and say that anyway even if they did the original bequest was implausible (then why did they accept the gift?), and argue that in any case the public interest is better served by their version of it than the family's, and they belatedly filed a countersuit claiming that actually the Robertson endowment somehow owes Princeton $235 million, and they dispute the plaintiffs' right to a jury trial on technical grounds, and in February they announced a new fellowship named for the original Robertson donors while denying that its creation had anything to do with the Robertson endowment fallout.

Uh huh....Well I'm no lawyer and I'm not at all sure that the Robertson heirs are entirely right ethically or legally, but at a minimum Princeton has been quite careless over the years and their behavior now leaves a sour odor. Whichever way the case turns out (years from now, after several well-funded appeals) its ultimate impact should be to make both donors and non-profits take the terms of restricted gifts more seriously. Follow Yale's 1995 example with the $20 million Lee Bass gift: if the donor's restrictions are too onerous and discussion doesn't yield a workable compromise, then you gotta give back the money!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Spending it down

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently made a rather startling (at least in charitable-foundation circles) decision: to spend themselves out of existence rather than operate in perpetuity. They will take a while to do it -- they're saying 50 years after the founders' deaths -- but still this makes Gates by far the largest foundation to do that. (And not simply because it's the biggest foundation period: all of the other multi-billion dollar foundations are permanent.)

In a sense this isn't completely surprising, because Warren Buffett's recent decision to give most of his wealth to Gates was on the same basis: that Buffett's funds be eventually spent down not be a permanent endowment. This decision puts Gates on one side of a growing debate within institutionalized philanthropy, which actually traces all the way back to its two American godfathers John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller pioneered the concept of endowing large-scale permanent grantmaking, while Carnegie preferred to see his "giving back" completed during his own lifetime.

Each approach has its advocates, but the fact that Rockefeller's concept has predominated is reflected in U.S. law: the "5% rule" for charitable foundations is explicitly based on the idea that most years that will leave the endowment continuing to grow. The high-profile Gates announcement may change that; for starters many lawmakers may not have been particularly aware that permanence isn't actually a universal standard for foundation philanthropy.

The Gates folks also announced that they will accept additional donations, raising the question of whether some more Buffett-scale gifts are in the works there.

Monday, December 04, 2006

U.S. museums are bursting out all over

The American Association of Museums' new annual "state of the sector" report has spurred some media coverage of a building boom now underway. It's not clear whether the trend cuts across all sizes among the estimated 17,500 museums in the U.S., but the big ones at least seem to be merrily satisfying their edifice complex.

Major museums are adding on in literally dozens of cities; a number of new wings or buildings opening now were first planned in the 1990s economic boom. The mix of public and private funding for the capital projects seems to vary widely, which is also true with the operating finances of museums.

The obvious question here is, can the sector afford to operate all this new space? I notice that most of the capital-fundraising campaigns now seem to include new endowments to cover overhead, so somebody has learned something. Still the question of whether the building boom represents supply appropriately rising to meet demand seems unanswered: the Association press release doesn't seem to provide long-term trend data on things like museum attendance and revenues, and data sources like Giving USA don't specifically aggregate museums as a category. (The press release does repeat the non-profit sector's autocomplaint about reduced public funding having forced an increased reliance on private fundraising, but the statistics they offer don't actually support that statement so I dunno.)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Who's more generous?

The hot topic of the moment in the philanthropic media (including blogs) is a new book by an economist named Arthur Brooks, entitled "Who Really Cares: America's Charity Divide". His thesis, based on a variety of survey data, is actually three-fold (and to some degree overlapping):

(a) religious households both liberal and conservative give more to charity than secular households do, even without counting giving to their churches;
(b) politically-conservative people give more to charity than do politically-liberal folks; and
(c) the wealthy and the working poor give about the same fractions of their income to charity, while the middle class gives much less.

So to sum up (in my words not his): "middle-class secular people who usually vote Democratic are stingy hypocrites". That would be,, and most of my friends and family, and at least 75% of my colleagues in the non-profit sector. No let's be honest, more like 90%. And a similar fraction of my former colleagues in newspaper journalism.

Coverage of the book, and of Brooks' various recent op-ed pieces promoting it, has centered on whichever of those arguments causes the most outrage with the particular writer. I did get into a brief online debate that's tangentially about this, over at White Courtesy Telephone, but before saying anything further about Brooks' facts I'll read the thing. All I've done thus far is to confirm at a surface level that at least a couple of the surveys that Brooks cite do support at least some of his claims, and locate an unrelated survey that supports at least one of his points. More than that will have to await reading the book and checking its listed sources.