Power To The People

December 1, 2007       Natalie Ghidotti      

There’s no doubt that the country’s wealthiest have made a difference in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s even greater assurance in the fact that if every American gave just a couple of bucks, many of the world’s greatest woes would be eliminated.

That was the overwhelming theme of this year’s Slate 60 conference in Little Rock, Ark., which celebrates the 60 individuals who made the largest charitable contributions in the United States during 2006, as determined by Slate magazine. Donations by this year’s Slate 60 exceeded $7 billion, not including Warren Buffett’s pledged $44 billion, much of which will go to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“There are two things we need to do. We need to get more people involved in this sort of work,” said former President Bill Clinton during a keynote address to the Slate 60 crowd at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. “We also need to think together about what should our responsibilities be, what should government’s responsibilities be and what should be the role of the civil society.”

Clinton spoke extensively about the need to encourage more people to give – whether middle school students in Maryland or rural residents in Arkansas. “We need to think about what we can do to take this beyond, to people who will never be at the Slate 60.”

The former president wasn’t the only one talking about expanding philanthropy beyond the wealthy. Other speakers, including Sherry Lansing, the former chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group (1992-2005), stress-ed the need for a larger volunteer effort. “There should be a larger campaign for volunteerism,” she said. “Philanthropy is as much about good ideas as it is about money.”

Giving from every corner

Lansing was part of a panel that discussed the role of charity in rural America, which followed Clinton’s plea for more philanthropic focus in non-urban areas. Of a total $30 billion in foundation giving in the United States, only $100 million goes to rural America initiatives, Clinton said. And only 1.5 percent of corporate grant dollars go to rural areas, even though 20 percent of corporate employees live in these areas.

“The Kellogg and Ford foundations account for 40 percent of all philanthropy in rural America,” said David Barksdale, a principal of Barksdale Management Group, whose family supports a number of economic development and education initiatives in Mississippi and the southeastern United States. “These foundations don’t make short-term commitments. They are in it for the long term.”

So is Barksdale’s family. His family has taken on the challenge of childhood literacy in Mississippi, along with the rebuilding of many parts of the Gulf Coast after the devastating Hurricane Katrina.

“The key for us when we looked at funding areas after the hurricane was that we didn’t want to do it by ourselves. We wanted to find additional funders who would help,” he told the crowd during the “Giving in Hard to Reach Places” panel discussion. “A lot of rural areas don’t have large nonprofits, so it’s very important for them to receive operating funds so that they can remain there and do their work.”

Lansing said she believes Baby Boomers are the answer to rural America’s needs, as well as the needs of the rest of the country. “They say 60 is the new 40,” she said. “We have to start redefining aging. We have this asset of people who will retire between ages 60 and 65, but you don’t truly retire, you rewire and give back and volunteer in the community. If we all did this, we could change rural America — and the world.”

Young at heart

But if you ask young philanthropists like Justin Rockefeller and Joe Green, they’ll tell you the lifeblood of charitable giving is in the country’s 20-somethings and 30-somethings. Rockefeller, who has spoken at the last two Slate 60 conferences, said it’s all about the “infrastructure of inspiration.”

“It’s cool to volunteer …your friends are doing it,” he said. “When you read about things like Warren Buffet’s gift, it just becomes this culture of philanthropy.”

Green, who created the popular Causes on Facebook, said Web 2.0 is really a social movement, not a technology. As of the Slate 60 conference, Green said approximately 7 million people have joined Causes, proclaiming to the world:  “A cause is who I am and what I care about.”

“Web 2.0 brings everything to the individual. You understand that one person can make a difference,” he said. “The technology and viral marketing is just showcasing a shift in our society.”

Silda Wall Spitzer, wife of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, said she believes the involvement of young people in philanthropy and community should start early. “There’s plenty of research that shows that the earlier children get involved, the more likely they are to grow into leaders and be involved,” she said.

Spitzer, along with Clinton, is an advocate of including community service and volunteer work in the everyday curriculum in schools. She is the founding chair (emeritus) of Children for Children, a New York nonprofit that creates opportunities for young people from all backgrounds to “grow involved” through volunteering and service starting at an early age. The group’s service learning and giving programs engaged more than 35,000 youth in hands-on service in 2006, with a projected goal of engaging more than 50,000 students in 2007.

“We’re beginning to see a rise in service learning in early education, and I’d like to think this is a reason we’re seeing such an increase in youth involvement,” said Spitzer.

Giving at any level

There was no doubt that the participants at the 2007 Slate 60 conference — whether young or old — were glad to be giving their money away.

“I looked in my closet and decided I had enough shoes,” joked Laurie Tisch of New York, who, with her siblings and cousins, is giving away a fortune assembled by her father and uncle, both deceased.

For others, it’s about working day and night toward a cause until change occurs. “Our foundation is like a business, with the only difference being that we have a goal of going out of business,” said Michael J. Fox, who founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and is working to find a cure for the disease.   NPT