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
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.