It is astonishing how some leaders in the charitable sector like to walk both sides of the street, taking convenient stances often just to see their names bandied about so they’ll feel important when it’s really all about them and not philanthropy.
It’s equally troubling when an uber-wealthy donor bends to the whims of those who seek the broader acknowledgment for themselves.
MacKenzie Scott and husband Dan Jewett have been sparklingly transparent when announcing the three rounds of gifts that totaled $8.7 billion. Forbes estimates her wealth at $59.2 billion and that for some reason is mentioned each time this generous person moves to support the sector’s infrastructure organizations, historically important educational institutions and even small community groups of which few people have ever heard.
In a post on the platform Medium, Scott announced in a column titled “No Dollars Signs This Time” there would be another round of eye-popping, transformational gifts. They’d be eye-popping if she and Dan revealed the amounts but they weren’t going to do it. That’s when the uproar began, and she announced a reversal of that position.
If these modern-day Mellons want to support the charitable sector then the unofficial, self-appointed philanthropy C-Suite conscience should get out of the way and rejoice in their work.
It was August 2010, when 40 of America’s wealthiest people made a commitment to give the majority of their fortunes to philanthropic causes. The Giving Pledge was launched by Warren Buffett, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates. It was initially targeting the United States but was expanded around the world. As of December 2021, there were 231 pledges from donors in 28 countries, the majority being the United States. The Giving Pledge, by the way, is not binding.
According to Forbes, using data from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, there are now 745 billionaires in the United States and 2,755 worldwide. Their worldwide assets total $13.1 trillion (U.S.).
Why do you think only 8.9% of billionaires have signed the pledge? There certainly are more than 745 buildings in the United States with donors’ names atop them and pediatric intensive care units named after grateful grandparents. The probable reason is to avoid just such ridiculous reactions and public scrutiny. It could also be selflessness — the very heart of philanthropy.
Fundraising leaders for more than a half-century have battled everywhere from municipal court to the Supreme Court of the United States to protect a donor’s right to privacy and a nonprofit’s right to keep its donors publicly undisclosed. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does require on Schedule B of the federal Form 990 that major donors be disclosed. But, Schedule B is not a public document, although information often leaks like a sieve from places such as the offices of various states attorneys general.
A battle has been raging in California regarding turning data over to state officials. The United States Supreme Court in a 6-3 vote held that a California law requiring nonprofit organizations to disclose major donor information in the state is unconstitutional. Now legislation to do what the court said the state could not do by regulation is being cooked up.
In NAACP v. Alabama (1958), the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that the First Amendment protected the free association rights of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its rank-and-file members including membership and fundraising lists.
There are any number of mainstream causes now that would have resulted in a scarlet letter for a donor had word gotten around. Donor privacy protections must be fortified. The obvious exception to the rules should be political action committees that attempt to buy political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Scott and Jewett are advised by the nonprofit The Bridgespan Group. Other than donor and consultant, nobody knows what advice was given and if anything was discussed regarding the reversal. It can only be hoped that if it did come up that Bridgespan’s consultants advised against changing course.
You can’t go to court to defend an organization’s ability to shield donors and then demand transparency on giving. Sure, the world’s wealthiest people are different from the rest of us. There’s that biblical writing that, “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
That requirement should not include charitable organizations having a say in what’s important to a donor.