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Give It Away | The Nation

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Give It Away

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All of the participants in the following roundtable—the result of a series of one-on-one interviews with leading figures in American philanthropy—believe in a "spend-down" version of philanthropy. The model was adopted by Irene and Aaron Diamond (disclosure: my great-aunt and great-uncle) during several decades of philanthropic work in New York City. Aaron Diamond died in 1984; his foundation was designed to spend its assets down within ten years of his death. From 1984 to 1994, it was one of New York City’s most vital philanthropic organizations. In 1994, Irene established the Irene Diamond Fund. Operating with a small staff, it was designed to make a large impact in a select number of areas over a specified number of years, and then to wind up. Chief among them was HIV/AIDS research; the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center is the world’s largest private, nonprofit AIDS research institute. Irene died in 2003; her foundation has continued for the past eight years. Now, as the fund dispenses the last of its remaining money, it is finally preparing to close its doors. —Sasha Abramsky

About the Author

Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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Why do we need philanthropists?

TIM SWEENEY (president, Gill Foundation): We’re the risk capital in our current economic and social system. What I mean by that is that we’re free to be innovative and creative in addressing the widest range of human interests and needs, everything from arts and culture to very large problems—the environment, human rights, poverty—that government or business may be trying to address but is struggling to figure out how. Philanthropy can help fill that gap in our current system.

We [the Gill Foundation] are very policy-oriented, and we really challenge society to look at some of the issues that government can’t figure out how to address, that many businesses don’t see as their purpose. We then build the capacity of community and organizations and populations to address issues, which means sometimes you’ve got to help them figure out how to organize themselves, to articulate a need or a gap, to build organizations to be sustainable and to have a leadership that is supported over time. We do a lot of funding of collaboratives, so that a research group is aligned and coordinated with a communications group, which is aligned and coordinated with a community organizing group, which is aligned and coordinated with an advocacy group, so the strategies are coordinated and working together.

We try to encourage people to look at really broad frames for issues. When a kid is beat up in school for being gay or perceived to be gay, we try to get at the larger issue of bullying in schools. Kids get beat up for being overweight, or for their race, or for wearing the wrong clothes. We try to lift issues up so a broader group of stakeholders can relate to the values we are espousing. In that case, most people would agree that every kid should be safe at school.

What is your vision of the ideal form of philanthropy?

LEWIS CULLMAN (92-year-old businessman and philanthropist; author of You Can’t Take It With You: The Art of Making and Giving Money): Private foundations are trying to sell you on the idea of how great they are, because if they don’t give all their money away they’ll have more money to give in the future. But let’s think about that. I feel very strongly that there’s no good reason for a private foundation to husband its money. Particularly in the last slump—I call it “When the fit hit the shan”—when private giving dried up and government giving dried up, the last resort was funds. There’s a pot of gold in private foundations waiting for a rainy day. If this isn’t a rainy day, what is?

JANE SILVER (president, Irene Diamond Fund): Irene really wanted to use her money to solve today’s problems. She felt an urgency about the problems, and she felt that she was probably the best person to judge what should happen to her money. She was a very interesting person. She said to me that philanthropy was like Hollywood: “You find a good script and you support it.” That’s a direct quote. As you know, she was a script reader, a senior editor in the story department at Warner Brothers, so she had a really good eye.

Her giving was different from many foundations. She was ahead of her time. There’s this whole philosophy about how foundations give—they want to give seed money, they want organizations to be able to find other sources of money. Although Irene saw herself as in some ways being a venture philanthropist, she also gave multi-year grants and general support grants, which are often very hard to get. She would find a person or an idea and she would support it—and hopefully, eventually, they would find other sources of funds. But she didn’t get in and get out. For example, the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center that she created during the AIDS epidemic—some very smart people identified a problem for her and said, “We’ll get a group of foundations to do this.” She said, “It’ll take forever. I’ll just do this.” David Ho [whom she hired as her head researcher] went on to become Time magazine’s Man of the Year [for his work on protease inhibitors], and the AIDS lab has been credited with some extremely critical and important discoveries that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t done it, or might have taken longer to happen.

BILL ROBERTS (former president, Beldon Fund; former director of US advocacy at Atlantic Philanthropies): The founder and funder of the Beldon Fund was a fellow called John Hunting, who’s still around. He looked around and saw there was a desperate need to take really strong steps to deal with environmental problems facing not only the US but the world, and most particularly focused on climate and other things to which there was a countdown clock attached. Although he could tie his annual giving to his basic return on investment, he decided that wasn’t going to do the trick. So he pushed as much of the resources as he had out there to tackle these problems now, with the appreciation that fixing these problems now would have a bigger dividend than funding this work over a long period of time. He also operated on the assumption that if he spent his money in a short time frame, there would be other philanthropic money to follow from it—from who knows what—after the Beldon Fund shut it doors.

A lot of ink has been spilled recently about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’s “Giving Pledge,” in which a group of billionaires publicly pledged to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity. What do you think of this pledge and of its broader impact on the world of philanthropy? Is it a gimmick?

BILL ZABEL (attorney whose law firm, Schulte Roth & Zabel, represents an array of foundations including George Soros’s Open Society Institute): “Gimmicky” is not the right word. But it’s not very relevant. They’re publicizing their own philanthropy—people who silently were going to give half their wealth anyway are going public.

LEWIS CULLMAN: If you’re worth $50 billion and you give half away, you’re still worth $25 billion, and that’s a lot of money. I think it’s wonderful, but I confronted Warren Buffett at a meeting. Buffett was at the New York Public Library three years ago; I said, “Warren, why don’t you give money away when you’re alive, and you can get joy out of it? Why wait till you’re dead and won’t be around to see it?” He said, “Not while I can get 7.25 percent compound interest on it!”

I tell every young person who comes to me for advice: “Just remember one thing: the buck you make yourself is yours. The buck you inherit comes full of psychological baggage.” I’ve seen examples of these trust babies. I used to go to Aspen a lot to ski. There are trust babies out there. You see these guys: “I’m going to spend two years finding myself.” What the hell does that mean? It means they have too much money and no incentive to do anything but sit around. Most of us, we get our drive from economic reward; if you take that away, you’ve really deprived him of a tremendous thing. You’ve not done him good; you’ve done him harm.

That seems like a pretty good argument for a more comprehensive estate tax.

LEWIS CULLMAN: I firmly believe that the estate tax is the right thing to do. It’s a great source of revenue, and I don’t see how anybody gets really hurt by it.

Talk to me more about the funding tactics you embrace. Should you aim for a constant flow of money to grantees, or should you focus your energies more in short, sharp bursts?

JANE SILVER: We should be doing what the government isn’t doing, won’t do, can’t do, but also pushing the government to do what they’re supposed to do. For example, a program we funded since Irene died was syringe access. Every scientific publication and public health organization showed since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that clean needles were better than dirty ones. Yet the federal government had a ban on [federal funding for] syringe exchange. When I took over, we participated in a joint effort with several other foundations to fund syringe exchange. But our job was twofold: one was to provide syringes to almost 200 programs around the country, but also to fund policy to lift the federal ban—which actually got lifted in 2009. The role of philanthropy is to both fund what the government won’t and can’t do and to push public programs, and work in partnership with them where possible, to do what they’re supposed to do. It’s also to have a longer-term vision. There’s this whole discussion about how spending down helps you to better focus, and having a deadline, seeing the finish line, helps you to better strategize. I think you absolutely have to focus and strategize. I don’t think there’s anything inherent in spending down that makes you necessarily better able to do that. But having a goal, having a vision, whether it’s long-term or short-term, is what’s necessary.

TIM SWEENEY: The Gill Foundation has this really ambitious idea that all Americans should have access to equal opportunity regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. What we’ve tried to do is fund what would be considered advocacy, research, organizing and community engagement that really challenges the larger society to address the issues of homophobia and transphobia. And we’ve put out a very powerful vision that lesbian and gay couples should be allowed to be married, that there should be no bullying in schools, that gay people should be free from workplace discrimination, free of religious vilification over their sexuality or gender identity. So we have really big dreams in the world. That kind of vision, that kind of ambition, it’s the best thing that philanthropy can do.

A lot of the challenge to philanthropy is to have a clear end goal and a focus in mind. And that’s why we’re approaching our philanthropy with this model. Are we getting there? Believe you me, we track this stuff very closely. We are also very, very involved, and have a program that we call “OutGiving,” an attempt to encourage donors to be more generous, more strategic and more collaborative in their giving, so they can go to scale in attempting to address some of these more difficult problems and ambitions about how we want a different world. We are very committed to increasing the amount of money and support that goes into, in this case, lesbian and gay or related issues…. That’s the philosophy our donor has: when others are timid, be bold. The needs and opportunities to us right now suggest it’s time for philanthropy to step up and spend as much as we can.

BILL ROBERTS: [Beldon’s] premise was that many of the problems you can tackle in civil society appear in a steady stream, in a moment or a set of moments when change is possible. And he believed that in those moments you need to throw everything you have at an issue to be successful. There’s an unevenness in the opportunities for social change; and you need to ride the waves when they come along, rather than just putting out a steady stream of philanthropy. His time frame was ten years.

We did not have a conscious, up-front, here’s-what-we-want-to-have-at-the-end goal. It was more about getting work done in the field that drove our efforts. Only afterward did we see the themes of the work that defined our approach to philanthropy. There are two basic categories of work, maybe three. We believed you could affect environmental policy in the US by leveraging the work in a select number of states. There are some states that, if you put them all together, could tip the scales of environmental support in Congress. So we invested in a number of states heavily and tried to raise the sophistication of advocacy groups in those states. And the results have been in some places quite remarkable. In Minnesota, where we did a lot of investing over the years, the number of accomplishments by groups on the ground was dramatic—again, over a period of time that work got funded by others, which we’re delighted about. The second thing we did, subsequently, was try to bring organization to the world of toxic chemicals and toxic chemical exposure. It was, for a long time, a very diffuse area, many tiny groups working diligently around the country, but nothing to hold them together in a policy framework or an approach to their own advocacy. We worked with a number of funders to bring order, cohesiveness to it. By the end it became a unified campaign and approach to dealing with toxic chemicals that is shared by groups around the country and in Washington.

Beyond the money, what sort of cultural role does philanthropy play in this area? Is it a glue between the political and the communal?

BILL ROBERTS: I think so. The thing that I found a little surprising, pleasantly though, is you have access to a network. You enjoy a perch, if you will, that gives you a capacity to leverage the impact of local groups that don’t have the range of vision you do to see how changes happen. Oftentimes, as philanthropy folk we see our role as simply writing checks and helping people with financial needs, and don’t appreciate we can play a role in connecting our grantees to sources of power and change they might not otherwise have access to. We don’t do enough of that, but when we do it can be powerful—for the cause, for the groups that are involved and sometimes even for the policy-makers themselves.

Jane, one last question. When the fund winds down, are you really just going to give your last dollar, turn out the lights and shut the door? No hoopla, no fanfare?

JANE SILVER: Absolutely. Irene never wanted a lot of recognition. She was much more interested in getting results than she was in getting credit. And we’ve honored that. We did put her name on the Juilliard School’s new building, because we wanted the young people and the students that she had invested in to remember her. We didn’t want it to be twenty years from now and no one knew who Irene Diamond was. But we’ve been very interested in getting results. And hopefully we have.

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