“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” (Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898)). It’s in that spirit that I write this blog…simply a place to express myself on a variety of subjects that will evolve to I don’t know what.
I’ve considered what the subject of the first entry should be. Something to do with business? Entrepreneurism? The ocean? Exchange Traded Funds? Wally, my family dog? And so forth…
The winning choice is to discuss briefly the subject of giving to non-profit organizations such as charities and universities. The subject is one I’ve given some thought to, and I hope it is or will be important to you.
By way of background, with a major class reunion coming up at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), I’ve been solicited by classmates (twice) within the last couple of months to make a gift to the GSB. These requests are in addition to the multiple annual boilerplate requests from Stanford itself and, within Stanford, the engineering school.
But in the annals of university fundraising, relative to the institutions’ sizes, Stanford is playing catch up to Princeton, which has pushed the envelope in its processes and successes in developing a large pool of donors. Although Stanford’s endowment of $17 billion is about the same as Princeton’s, on a per student basis Princeton’s is the country’s largest at $2 million/student, while Stanford’s is “only” $1 million/student. In a similar vein, Princeton’s endowment is over 11X its annual operating budget, vs. only 4X for Stanford. (Numbers are approximate. Student counts include undergraduate & graduate.)
While endowments such as these support current operations to some extent, they continue to grow and the sponsoring university’s management cannot resist the temptation to devote incremental resources to making the savings accounts even larger.
(Sidebar: Given their financial resources, if these universities were publicly held companies, the odds are high they would be hounded by shareholders demanding a dividend or share repurchase. The fact they have so much cash and outside investments indicates they don’t feel they have good enough investment opportunities in their own lines of business, research and education. So why do they need more?)
Would a gift to Stanford and/or Princeton be the best use (from society’s point of view) of the dollars I’ve budgeted for charity? Honestly, I don’t think so. I say that because I feel the marginal effect of any gift I might make to either of these schools would be truly negligible compared to what the same gift would mean to any of many other charities.
I first started thinking critically about the subject of charitable donations as a volunteer of the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which I co-founded 10 years ago and helped bootstrap. My interest was further piqued by a 2008 article in the New York Times by a Harvard alum questioning Harvard’s priorities, “Enjoy the Reunion, Skip the Check.” In re-reading it again, this article continues to impress me.
Finally, philosopher Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, is an original thinker who has written and lectured widely on leading an ethical life. One topic he’s elevated is how to apportion one’s gifts to charities; in 2010 he authored The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, in which he argues that giving to save lives is the highest form of giving. He’s had several relevant articles in the New York Times including one last Sunday, Good Charity, Bad Charity.
So, if one is interested in making one’s gifts count, where specifically should they go? That is obviously a personal question, one only you can answer, and one I urge you to be intelligent about. Personally, I’ve begun by looking close to home, where the poverty doesn’t quite compare with Africa’s, but the needs are still great (at least relative to Stanford & Princeton!). One admirable and, I feel, worthy charity with a Bay Area focus is Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. For gifts further afield, there are websites that suggest worthy charities, and the best such site I’ve found is GiveWell.org.
In the end, your gifts are yours to make. My suggestion is that you strive to make them count.