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Philanthropy Thrives Even With Reduced Resources

November 13, 2009
New York Times


New York Times


Philanthropy Thrives, Even With Reduced Resources

By Paul Sullivan

November 14, 2009

The expectation in America is that people who do well give back to society. For the wealthy, it is one way to stave off charges of being greedy. And in the boom times, being seen as philanthropic seemed a social and political obligation.

But just as the downturn left the wealthy (and the rest of us) reeling from personal portfolio losses, their foundations also suffered investment losses that have affected their capacity to give. The Foundation Center in New York said this month that philanthropic giving in 2009 could fall as much as 13 percent. This has left many charities, particularly small ones, scraping for funds.

Yet Charles Bronfman, the former co-chairman of the Seagram Company and founder of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, was quick to correct me when I asked him how philanthropists felt about the pressure to give back. “I never give back,” he said. “I don’t like that term. I give because I want to give. Other people give because they want to increase their social standing.”

That may help explain why philanthropy has not dipped as much as people’s net worth. “I think some donors are in a state of panic, which leaves them frozen in place,” said Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers. “But others have a more philosophical temperament and have continued on a steady course.”

This has meant that the wealthy have become more creative with their philanthropic dollars. She noted that aid to large, stable institutions had been cut in favor of smaller organizations that might be struggling to weather the downturn. The big winners have been food charities, she said, while small arts organizations have suffered the most.

Yet Mr. Bronfman, who has co-written the book “The Art of Giving” with the president of his foundation, Jeffrey R. Solomon, said the philanthropic economy never dips as far as the economy and returns at the leading edge of any recovery. “It can be for guilt; it can be for pleasure; but at the end of the day, giving is something that makes you feel better,” said Mr. Bronfman, who has been involved with philanthropy for 63 years.

To test this hypothesis, I decided to check in with three philanthropists I had spoken to in 2006. At the time, they were all overseeing personal foundations in a strong economy. Today, the one common thread is that they are seeking innovative ways to continue their philanthropy with diminished resources.

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Broward County Inspiring Philanthropy over 25 years