How to be smart about philanthropy

Marketplace Staff Dec 11, 2009

How to be smart about philanthropy

Marketplace Staff Dec 11, 2009


Tess Vigeland: Wouldn’t it be fun to have so much money that you could just give away millions and millions of dollars? Well, Charles Bronfman gets to do that. Yes, he’s one of those Bronfmans — of Seagram’s fame. And for the last 20-plus years he’s been giving away money. Some $400 million through the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

He’s got a new book out called “The Art of Giving” in which he says we all should think like a foundation when deciding where and how to donate. And so, in this season of giving, we are joined by Mr. Bronfman and his co-author and Chairman Jeffrey Solomon.

Charles, welcome to you.

Charles Bronfman: Pleasure to be here.

Vigeland: And Jeffrey Solomon, thanks for joining us.

Jeffrey Solomon: My pleasure.

Vigeland: I wonder how you kind of explain to people, Charles, the similarities between folks who have millions and millions and millions of dollars to give away and those of us who, perhaps, $5 here, $50 there

Bronfman: Actually, the principles are the same. First of all, you have to zero in on what do you care about and try not to be engaged in peripheral things that really don’t grab you very much.

Vigeland: I want to share with you what my strategy is — and I am not in a position to be a multi-million dollar giver — but I have a list of a couple of causes that are near and dear to me and for the most part that’s all I do. In fact, at the check out line at the grocery store, I even say no to that, because I really choose to focus on a couple of different causes. Would you call that a strategy or do I need to be thinking of it in even better and more deep ways? Jeffrey?

Solomon: Well, clearly that’s a strategy. And it’s a strategy for which you deserve great credit, because too many of us sort of act like Santa Claus. We see a sad animal on a letter or a child starving — and these are compelling causes — but ultimately, what is philanthropy? They are choices between right and right. Very difficult choices between right and right. So what you’ve done is you’ve identified those couple of causes that speak to you. That’s your fingerprint, that’s your “soul print” if you will. The only addition we would recommend is working with organizations to know that you’re having impact.

Vigeland: I suppose you can read the annual report, but beyond that how do you know your dollars are going where you want them to go?

Solomon: Well, we argue you can’t improve what you can’t measure. And that one of the things you would want to do is to be working with charitable organizations that agree with that approach, that are comfortable looking at themselves, developing benchmarks and comparing themselves to other similar organizations. No different than any other investment.

The thing that struck us in terms of wanting this book was we’d walk into the personal finance section of the bookstore, and there would be 150 books about how to invest and not one about how to invest philanthropically. We felt that the calling for us of this book was to help people truly understand that they can make a greater difference by being targeted, by having a philanthropic budget, so you don’t necessarily give that extra dollar or $5 at the check out.

Vigeland: But Charles, can you explain why it’s important to be strategic with a dollar? I mean, I understand a foundation wanting to be strategic with where it’s sending its millions, but you know, a dollar at the check out counter, why not?

Bronfman: Well supposing your whole budget is $1,000, well that $1 starts to represent some money, it’s not just a dollar to be thrown away. And so if you want to focus and treat philanthropy with the respect that we think it deserves, then you start asking yourself questions. And again, it doesn’t matter the amount, it matters the intentionality.

Vigeland: Why do you think we don’t ask ourselves those questions, when it comes to philanthropy versus, as Jeffrey was saying, investing?

Bronfman: Because, I think, it’s sort of something that comes from the outside-in, rather than from the inside-out.

Vigeland: What do you mean?

Bronfman: Well, something comes over the transom, so you look at it and you say, “Oh, OK.” At this time, you see the Salvation Army and so on, and you say, “Why not, I’ll put in $5 in the pot” or a dollar in the pot or a quarter in the pot, yet you haven’t thought, yourself, about “Should I give to the Salvation Army or not?”

Vigeland: But isn’t the whole point of, for example, the Salvation Army kettles that you don’t think about it? You simple see them there and you say, “Oh I’ve got change in my pocket.”

Bronfman: That’s the same as impulse shopping, you know?

Vigeland: Never thought about it that way.

Bronfman: But we sort of say, “If you can afford it, fine.” If you’re trying to zero in on your dollars and where they’re going, then not so fine.

Vigeland: But Jeffrey, isn’t giving in essence, a selfish act. I mean, you’re doing it really to feel good about yourself.

Bronfman: Yeah.

Solomon: We don’t think philanthropy represents altruism. We think it represents really wanting to improve society for the pleasure it brings you, in making a difference in others’ lives. Paul Schervish, a Boston University [sic, actually Boston College] professor who studies donor motivations, reports that the major change in the last generation is that a generation ago, people gave to charities to support the charities cause. Today, people give to charities that help them achieve their personal mission.

Vigeland: Hm.

Solomon: And it’s a huge opportunity for those charitable organizations that say “We’re going to take advantage of that. We are going to be come more transparent, we’re going to show them the impact, we’re going to show them our efficiency.”

Vigeland: But I wonder, given the fact that so many of us don’t even do enough research to know what we’re doing in our 401(k)s, where to invest our money, how likely is it that we’re going to go and really do our homework on the charities?

Bronfman: Well, I think it’s a question of how much homework one really has to do. I think sometimes we make things that we don’t know a lot about more complex than they really are. Just try to zero in on those things that matter to you. Because we’re all very different human beings, over time and with the diversity we have within the society, then many of us can give to those things that they really care about and at the end of the day, the society is better.

Vigeland: Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon are the co-authors of “The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan.” Great title.

Thank you both so much for coming in and happy holidays.

Bronfman: It’s been a real pleasure, Tess, and happy holidays to you.

Solomon: All the best, Tess.

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