One on One: The gain of give and take

Philanthropy scholar Leslie Lenkowsky says that modern concepts of charity are consistent with the spirit of Maimonides.

lenkowski 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
lenkowski 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
'Giving is a kind of habit," says Indiana University Center on Philanthropy scholar Prof. Leslie Lenkowsky. "Once you give to one cause, you're more likely to give to others." Which is why, says the former president of the Hudson Institute, "The first thing I do when I go to a concert is not look at what's being performed, but rather, look at the donor list at the back of the program, because it tells me who's giving to what these days." Lest one pooh-pooh such a peculiar, if not what some might consider crass, endeavor, examining "who's giving to what these days" has become the stuff of serious study. Not that it's new, mind you, as Lenkowsky would be the first to acknowledge. This he does by pointing to Maimonides, whose "eight levels of tzedaka" predate the likes of Bill Gates by centuries. Still, he explains, "learning about it helps to learn how to do it better," particularly since private initiatives have proven more efficient at tackling all sorts of societal needs or ills than governments tasked with the gargantuan job. Israel, too, is now getting in on the act. This is not to say that both ends of the giving-and-receiving business are the least bit foreign to this country or its people. On the contrary, says Lenkowsky, "There's been a long tradition of philanthropy and charity in Judaism - going way back to pre-Christian-era times." The novelty lies in it becoming an academic discipline - research, degrees and all. Enter the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel was launched earlier this month, with an address by Lenkowsky (titled "Philanthropy: Maimonides's Ladder Today"), a leading expert in the field. And Jewish, to boot, which is likely why, in addition to invoking the Rambam, he recalls another source of old wisdom relating to the currently hot topic. "My grandmother used to say, 'If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?' In philanthropy, often people are so rich they think they must be smart.'" In an hour-long interview during his visit, Lenkowsky gives an overview of the philanthropic process, stressing the "mitzva factor" he believes is so crucial for donors to worthy causes. Why is the issue and study of philanthropy all the rage these days? For a few reasons. First of all, countries like Israel - that have had very active governments - are realizing that government can't do everything, and they've begun looking to private individuals to take on some of the tasks that used to be those of government. By the same token, a lot of people feel that government isn't fulfilling their needs, so they begin to establish philanthropies. Secondly, today's young people - certainly in the United States, and I think it's true in Israel, as well - are motivated by a kind of idealism. They really do want to give back to their communities. Philanthropy and volunteering offer avenues for doing so. The third factor is religion, which is a major driver of philanthropy and volunteer work. If religion is a driving factor, why don't more Muslims donate money to causes that would better the lives of their own people? Why don't Arabs have organizations like the Jewish Agency, to help the Palestinians who claim to wish to build a state the way the Jews did? There's always been a lot of philanthropy in the Muslim world, but it's been very tightly wedded to religious institutions, and doesn't usually serve the wide variety of secular and religious purposes the Israeli philanthropy does. There is, though, a growing amount of secular wealth throughout the Middle East. I was at a conference in Dubai recently, where the preliminary results of a report on secular philanthropy in the Middle East, prepared by the American University in Cairo - which has a center on philanthropy similar to the one that just opened at the Hebrew University - were presented. So, there are some seeds beginning to sprout in this area. As you know, philanthropy in the Muslim world has often been a cover for unsavory activities. This is what makes it so difficult to deal with, because there are certain legitimate social-welfare causes to which money is given, but then, some of the money is used for other purposes, which are less legitimate. What model is the center at the Hebrew University using? Like all such centers, it will develop its own model, but its director, Prof. Hillel Schmid, is very well acquainted with the work of our center at Indiana University - and other centers throughout the United States - and he will probably develop something similar at Hebrew U. He'll focus on why people give, on how much giving occurs, and so forth. I was very impressed by some of the historians I met at HU, who, for example, are really interested in the history of Jewish philanthropy in 19th century Russia. Now you might ask, "What use is that?" Well, rediscovering the past is always valuable. It always has lessons to teach us. It also reminds us of some of the roots of today's philanthropy. What are those roots? There's been a long tradition of philanthropy and charity in Judaism - going way back to pre-Christian-era times. Maimonides set out, as he did in many other areas, to codify a long list of biblical and Talmudic prescriptions for this. The key point about Maimonides's eight levels of tzedaka - which is sometimes called his "ladder of giving" - is that they are directed to the giver. In other words, they're meant to explain to the giver how he can do his philanthropy effectively - or more effectively. The highest rung on Maimonides ladder is the gift that enables the recipient to become self-supporting, so as not to need charity in the future. The opposite of welfare, you mean? Exactly. That's a very important point: that philanthropy is not about helping poor people get by. It should be about helping poor people reduce their need for any kind of philanthropy, and maybe even become philanthropists themselves. It's a very interesting trend within the philanthropic community worldwide. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize went to Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist, who developed something called the Grameen Bank, which gives loans to low-income women to enable them to start businesses. Bill Gates, in a major speech at a conference in Switzerland recently, called for "creative capitalism" - whereby businesses use their know-how to deal with some of the world's problems. And, even though these examples are as contemporary as can be, they're consistent with the spirit of Maimonides. Is there a way to track how successful one form of philanthropy is over another? You probably can't do it by form, but you certainly can look at individual efforts. We know, for example, whether or not the efforts of a foundation that tries to make a difference, say, in education, are working. Judging this, though, is a challenge. Much of what philanthropists do takes a while to bear fruit. In the 1950s, a financial gift enabled a young biochemist named James D. Watson to go to Cambridge University and unlock the secret of the genetic code. To this day, we don't even know the extent of that success. If you are referring to Yunus's Gameen Bank and the grant that enabled Watson to break the genetic code as examples of philanthropy, it must be a broader term than is generally assumed. Can you define it? No. [He laughs] The Greek root of the word is "love of mankind." It's pretty all-encompassing. There's also something called "misanthropy," in which bad things are done with money. And there are plenty of examples of that, too. Sometimes they overlap; sometimes one tries to do good, but winds up doing bad. The definition we use in Indiana University is "voluntary action for the public good." So it is voluntary - not like a tax system, where one is forced to pay. It involves action, which means you don't just sit around and talk about an issue; you go and do something about it. The tricky phrase here, of course, is the public good, because one person's public good may not be another's. So that's where some of the debates lie. If governments give tax breaks for philanthropy, does that not detract from the element of doing good work? Or, in the case of distributing plaques in the name of donors, does it not lead to a degree of cynicism? Is the element of ego taken into account in your studies? Absolutely. A lot of our students at Indiana University - and I'm sure this will be true of students at Hebrew University, as well - will go into fundraising. And fundraising is not always a pretty business. In fact, one of the nicer things that fundraisers have said about themselves is that they like to pass the begging bowl. People give for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it reflects a desire for immortality. Sometimes it is ego-driven or spurred by tax breaks and the like. Maimonides understood this very well. The lowest level on his "ladder of giving" is the person who gives grudgingly, which doesn't only mean someone who gives with an unhappy countenance, but one who otherwise would not give if it weren't for the rewards he or she gets in return - though that's a form of giving as well; it's just not the most estimable form. We'd like to encourage people to give in better ways. So the study of philanthropy not only reports on how people give, but also examines ways they could do it better. What about anonymous giving? Is there such a thing in the real world? Yes, but it's more rare. Still, it's not insignificant. My university received an anonymous gift of $100 million last year, for example. Some very wealthy people actually prefer to give anonymously, perhaps because they don't want their wealth to be widely known. Or maybe because they are more focused on the satisfaction they get than the glory. Is the purpose of studying this to train fundraisers in the psychology of the rich, in order to learn how best to get them to part with their money? That's certainly one very practical aspect of it, but it's by no means the only one. Do students study actual methods, such as "card-calling," which virtually embarrasses people into opening their wallets? [He laughs] As a matter of fact, my university runs a PhD in philanthropy program, and our first doctoral student defended her dissertation on what she called "social information," which means how knowing what others with whom you identify give affects your own giving. It was a very sophisticated study by a Chinese student, and I said to her at one point, "Well, you know, Jews have known about this for a long time. We call it 'card-calling,' and that could only mean that there's truth to the idea that the Chinese are one of the 10 lost tribes." Is there a difference between Jewish and Christian giving? It is said that if you approach a Christian, he will either agree to fund a certain project or he won't, depending on whether it interests him, whereas a Jew will negotiate how much or how little he can give, depending on his finances that year - that a Jew somehow agrees with you that he should be giving, but is bargaining over how much. [He laughs] I don't think there's any research that suggests this is the case. But we do know that Jewish people in the US tend to be more generous than other defined groups. Giving among Jews is quite substantial. Not only to Jewish causes? No, not only to Jewish causes. In fact, there's an old joke among Jewish fundraisers that Brandeis used to be the Jewish Harvard until Harvard became the Jewish Harvard. As Jews become more integrated into all aspects of American life, giving has gotten much more diverse. Is giving to Israel a significant portion of Jewish philanthropy? The latest statistic I was able to find was that in 2002, Jewish giving from the US to Israel came to $200 million, which, using the value of the shekel then, approached NIS 1 billion. That's a lot of money. It just about equals the amount of giving in Israel by Israelis. In other words, it's quite substantial as a fraction of all giving. Still, it appears that the proportion of Jewish giving to Israel has been going down in the last few years. Even during the Second Lebanon War? Aren't there moments when there's a surge? Yes, people always respond generously to emergencies. My center tracks emergency giving, so we were the people behind some of the statistics surrounding tsunami and Katrina relief. We also tracked post-9/11 patterns. And the most interesting finding was not that people gave - which they did substantially - but that it didn't seem to have much of an effect on their giving to other causes. A lot of organizations in New York were worried that money going to 9/11 relief would come at the expense of cultural or other institutions. But, aside from a short-term downturn, that didn't happen. This is nothing new. Back in the middle of the 18th century, Adam Smith wrote about how people were giving for the great disaster of those days - the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. And it turned out that even though Smith believed strongly in the motivating force of self-interest, he modified his views when he saw how many people were giving to causes in which they had no self-interest. So he developed the idea of sympathy as a kind of innate human emotion. Is a person who gives to charity for the first time more likely to do it again - for additional or other causes? Yes. Giving is a kind of habit. Once you give to one cause, you're more likely to give to others. That's why the first thing I do when I go to a concert is not look at what's being performed, but rather look at the donor list at the back of the program, because it tells me who's giving to what these days. We in the US are particularly interested right now in the retiring of the baby boom generation, because there are so many of them, and they're retiring in better health and with a longer life expectancy than their predecessors. Furthermore, a large part of the volunteer labor force of American charities comes from senior citizens. And the problem with the baby boomers is that during their lifetime, they have been less likely to volunteer than their parents' generation. What we're interested in is the question of whether the baby boomers will change in the later part of their life and become more active givers and volunteers. There are some encouraging signs, but it's really too early to tell. Is it true that the younger generation tends to earmark its donations, and if so, why? Today's donors tend to be more educated and professional in their own careers than donors used to be, so they think they understand better what it is that needs to be done to help the needy or educate children or whatever. My grandmother used to say: "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" In philanthropy, often people are so rich they think they must be smart. That can go too far. A good philanthropist understands that people who are closer to the problem being addressed probably have a lot more knowledge than you do. Furthermore, giving always involves a certain amount of trust. The more strings attached to giving to a charity, the less trust one is expressing. There are different reasons we're seeing more earmarking - some on the recipient end, and some on the donor end. Trust is not what it used to be. Justifiably so? I don't think so. In fact, I argue the opposite. If you've identified an organization that's worth handling your earmarked money, it ought to be worth handling your unrestricted money. So, I don't think it's well-deserved, but it's a reality and we have to live with it. On the other hand, isn't there an awful lot of waste involved in merely keeping the non-profit organizations and foundations running? Doesn't much of the money go for salaries and conferences, at the expense of the intended recipients? Isn't it therefore understandable for donors to want to make sure their money is actually arriving at its destination, and not being spent on board meetings? Some people feel that way about certain organizations, but they are at liberty to work with others which they trust are run efficiently. Speaking of which, what about competition between different charitable organizations working toward the same goal? Doesn't it defeat the purpose in some way? The idea of philanthropy is to "let a thousand flowers bloom." Chairman Mao was the great theorist of philanthropy even though he didn't know it [he smiles]. It's true that there are many organizations that overlap. But I think donors are intelligent enough to decide which organization does it better and direct their money accordingly. In Israel, private soup kitchens have begun sprouting up all over the place. Every year, especially around holiday time, there is a renewed outcry about the government's having shirked its responsibility toward the poor. Are such endeavors equally frowned upon in the US? Absolutely not. Well, there are people who think the government should be doing more than it is. But nobody would begrudge soup kitchens. To the contrary, in the US, we've been looking for ways by which government can aid soup kitchens. Is there a difference between higher and lower income people in terms of their giving? It's a complicated story. Lower-income people are far more generous, in the sense that they give a larger percentage of their incomes to charity. On the other hand, the percentage of people with high incomes who give anything is larger than that of lower-income people. What constitutes good fundraising? A good fundraiser understands that his or her job is not only raising money for his own organization, but enhancing the culture of philanthropy in a community - really being an intermediary between a donor and an organization. Fundraisers ought not to think of their work as "drawing blood from a stone." They need to learn that a lot of people don't realize the satisfaction they will get from giving their money to a worthy cause. The job of a good fundraiser is really to explain to a potential donor why he should give his money to a particular cause, not only because it's good for the cause, but because it's good for him. This is what I used to call the "mitzva theory," because to the extent you succeed at this, you are doing a great mitzva for the donor.