Editors’ Note: Benjamin Soskis reviews Joel Fleishman’s Putting Wealth to Work: Philanthropy for Today or Investing for Tomorrow? HistPhil recently published an excerpt from the book.
In his new book, Putting Wealth to Work, Joel Fleishman, a professor of law and public policy at Duke and the director of its Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, issues a timely word of warning about what he considers to be a dangerous recent development within the philanthropic sector. And by timely, I don’t only mean that he deals with a topic of particular contemporary relevance. I mean that Fleishman takes up the issue of time itself—and its relation to philanthropic giving. He is concerned with “the dramatic shift of donor preference away from accumulating wealth in presumably perpetual institutions…and instead spending such wealth primarily in the present.”
If arguments in favor of “Giving While Living” and of spending philanthropic resources now rather than later continue to dissuade prospective foundation founders from endowing new perpetual institutions, as he believes to be the case, Fleishman warns that “America will be at risk of losing its capacity to continue facilitating the birth and nurturing of the kinds of high-quality civic sector organizations that have helped make this country the dynamic society that it has long been.” So the stakes, as he sees them, are high.
In one sense, Fleishman makes a strange evangel for perpetuity; from 1993 to 2003, Fleishman took part-time leave from academic positions at Duke to serve as a senior executive at the Atlantic Philanthropies, the largest foundation to have spent-down (although it formally committed to the spend-down in 2002, and will close its doors for good in 2020, the foundation’s founder, Chuck Feeney, had hinted at the possibility as early as the mid 1990s). But at Duke, one of Fleishman’s main research achievements was the compilation of a sourcebook of case studies of high-impact philanthropic initiatives. Through this work, he clearly developed a keen appreciation for the accomplishments of perpetual foundations. And in doing so, he has become that rare figure in the field of philanthropy scholarship—the proud institutionalist. He now finds himself swimming against the entrepreneurial tide, offering a check to unrestrained celebrations of the rising corps of living donors, who, he argues, are rarely as innovative and entrepreneurial as traditional foundations.
Before we get to Fleishman’s brief in favor of perpetuity, it’s worth considering the admonitory premise on which his book is based: is the spend-down model really spreading? Fleishman clearly thinks it is.
“[T]he single most important change that has taken place since 1990,” he writes, is that “prospective donors appear to be favoring either the creation of a time-limited foundation with a lifespan roughly concurrent with their own or the direct disposition of substantial gifts during their lifetimes without the involvement of a foundation at all. That is a seismic shift in philanthropic practice.”
This would be a seismic shift, but it’s important to note that Fleishman’s registering of it is largely impressionistic and anecdotal. He does not point to any sector-wide empirical data to back up his claim. This is likely because, as one recent report explained, “Knowledge about the lifespan intentions of independent foundations is very limited.” And much of the research that is available suggests that the perpetuity model is still solidly entrenched. A 2016 survey from the Center for Effective Philanthropy of 200 foundation CEOs found that only sixteen percent believed that limited lifespan held “a lot of promise for increasing foundations’ impact in the coming decade.” The most recent comprehensive study of foundation lifespan was conducted by the Foundation Center in cooperation with the Council on Foundations in 2009 and was based on responses from 1,074 family foundations. The report found that 12 percent of foundations planned to have a limited lifespan, 63 percent reported a commitment to perpetuity, while 25 percent were undecided. These figures roughly track the results of an earlier 2004 Foundation Center survey, which found that 69 percent of respondents expected to carry on grant-making activities in perpetuity, while only 9 percent did not.
This is not to say that Fleishman is imagining the shift toward limited-life philanthropy. There do seem to be trend-lines emerging. A 2015 study of 341 family foundations, for instance, found that while only 3 percent of foundations surveyed that were established before 1970 planned to spend down their assets within a limited life span, 19 percent of those formed between 2010 and 2014 indicated that they plan to do so.
But what is really shaping Fleishman’s perception of a “seismic shift” in attitudes toward philanthropic timeframe is not the aggregated decisions of hundreds of small family foundations. It’s the examples set by a few of the Silicon Valley elite who have embraced limited-life philanthropy. Bill and Melinda Gates, who have decided that their massive eponymous foundation will shut down twenty years after the last of the couple dies, is the obvious example, and right behind them is Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who have pledged to devote ninety-nine percent of their Facebook shares to philanthropic causes in their own lifetimes. There is no doubt that these givers claim a vast amount of media and industry scrutiny. Not only do their mega-donations warp aggregate giving totals around a preference for limited-life, but they also shape norms and general public attitudes toward the responsibilities of wealth. (We might find out relatively soon if Jeff Bezos continues this warping).
So while we cannot yet say that limited-life philanthropy has become a sector-wide default, its popularity among some of the highest-profile donors does suggest why it might seem like one.
The strongest, most bracing sections of the book are those that seek to deflate the pretensions of the Giving While Living movement, which scholars and journalists of philanthropy (myself included) have tended to approach deferentially. The compulsion of donors to see their individual preferences and proclivities reflected in their philanthropy, which is often considered the voluntarist fuel that propels giving, is considered much more critically by Fleishman. He suggests that the extension of this compulsion to a strict adherence to an ethic of donor intent might be branded as “graceless,” a term he adapts from Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth,” in which the steel magnate complains that there is “no grace” in the gifts of those who wait to give only at death.
Carnegie’s Gospel is of course the central text of the Giving While Living movement, but in appropriating the rebuke, Fleishman highlights another element of Carnegie’s philanthropic legacy: the open-ended faith he harbored in the trustees he chose to lead the perpetual institutions he established once it became clear to him that he couldn’t give away all his wealth while he lived. As Henry Pritchett, the long-serving president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, explained, Carnegie “decided in favor of the perpetual trust, influenced in large measure by his faith in his fellow men.” According to Pritchett, Carnegie “created permanent endowments in the promotion of various great causes not because he believed these agencies would always function at the maximum efficiency; all human organisms, he was wont to say, have their periods of activity and of commonplace performance. But taking the long view, looking to generation after generation, he had confidence that successive groups of trustees would deal wisely and justly with their responsibilities.” Fleishman shares this view and finds the lack of a similar faith in many contemporary donors disturbing.
“The spend-downers who are motivated primarily by such mistrust of their philanthropic successors,” he writes, “strike me as almost ‘graceless’…as those who hold onto their wealth until they die, while the non-spend-downers manifest a praiseworthy nobility of spirit in giving for the benefit of future generations, even if such future giving may not accord with how the donors would have preferred to see their philanthropic wealth spent.”
Here Fleishman upends the moral hierarchies often associated with discussions of philanthropic timeframes. He asks us to reconsider how we understand an ethic of philanthropic selflessness in the context of these decisions. It is often insinuated that givers who have established perpetual foundations are driven more by ego than are those who favor spend-down institutions; the limited-life crowd, after all, forgo the enticements of immortality. Chuck Feeney, the duty-free shopping magnate who created Atlantic Philanthropies has done more than any other figure to secure these associations. Feeney was not just famously publicity shy (he kept his giving anonymous till 1997); he was also preternaturally modest in temperament and style. Despite having made billions, he fastidiously maintained his working-class New Jersey roots, wearing a cheap Timex and taking cabs instead of limos.
Yet if Feeney was an exemplar of self-abnegation in these respects, the spend-down model of philanthropy that he champions is in fact particularly staked to the personal gratification of the donor, as his own campaign to promote Giving While Living makes clear. Explaining the rationale of the campaign upon receiving the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy, he announced, “It’s simple, really. You get more satisfaction from giving while you’re alive and involved.”
Fleishman takes that attitude and spins it to construct a moral defense of perpetuity. It’s those who are willing to leave a fortune for future trustees to manage who should be praised for exercising a noble form of philanthropic humility. He extends this argument to take on what he considers to be excessive fears of donor drift within the sector. This involves poking holes in the classic story of such deviation from donor intent, Henry Ford II’s resignation from the board of the Ford Foundation in 1976 (you can read a version of Fleishman’s revision of this story in his recent HistPhil post). It also involves—a bit problematically, since it seems to validate some of the concerns he’s simultaneously dismissing as “graceless”—pointing out that there are many examples of foundations that have seemed to faithfully uphold the intent of their donors; he cites the Sloan, Kresge, Hewlett, Packard, and Kellogg Foundations, as exemplars, among others.
Fleishman insists that he sees no evidence of the common charge that perpetual foundations are especially prone to programmatic timidity or to bureaucratic sclerosis. In fact, when Fleishman takes a careful look at examples of spend-down foundations, he has a difficult time determining any special quality that distinguishes them from perpetual foundations, except for the larger size of the grants they hand out (Francie Ostrower has made a similar observation).
This leads him to question rationales for limited-life philanthropy rooted in claims to particularly high impact. Speaking about the foundation that he knows best, he asks, “If Atlantic Philanthropies, in its concluding years, is doing more or less what it was doing during its earlier 20 years—or in any case, continuing the values and aspirations that motivated all those years of work—and by all accounts doing it well, why should it assume that spending its entire endowment and going out of business can create greater social benefit than continuing its grantmaking indefinitely?”
Behind this question is a more fundamental one concerning philanthropy’s temporal dimension and the relationships between grant-making, social change, and time. Fleishman is skeptical of quick-fixes; he believes that most social problems worth addressing cannot be solved in a single lifetime and so are not amenable to the “Giving While Living” mandate, which he assumes does not merely require giving large sums inter vivos but in achieving definitive victories over those problems before death as well. Instead, Fleishman champions philanthropy’s “subtler and slower arts,” those that generate institutional experience and wisdom over decades of labor. And he worries that the imperative to “spend-down” will increase the popularity of a “Big Bet” approach to giving, which might seek short-term victories at the expense of more enduring support for institutions and infrastructure (you can hear echoes of the critique recently aired by the Hewlett Foundation’s Larry Kramer). He doubts, for instance, that pouring huge amounts of resources into medical research in one magnificent dollop is any more likely to produce a meaningful breakthrough than ensuring the constant flow of smaller amounts of support over an extended period of time.
He scores some definite hits on limited life philanthropy’s allure—his wariness of invocations of compounding social returns to bolster the case for spending now is especially notable—but not in a particularly rigorous way. For one, there are certainly cases when a short-term, large-scale infusion of philanthropic resources, a funding practice that suits the spend-down model, does seem to fit the social problem meant to be addressed: epidemics, for instance. Fleishman is certainly aware of this; after all, one of the case-studies of impactful philanthropic initiatives that his Duke center produced was of the Aaron Diamond Foundation, which pumped millions into the funding of AIDS medical research during its spend-down, when few funders, public or private, were addressing the epidemic, a torrent of funding that did indeed help produce a life-saving medical breakthrough, protease inhibitors.
More generally, it’s not entirely clear how the virtues that Fleishman invokes to bolster his defense of perpetuity—patience, endurance, experience—apply to the current manifestation of Giving While Living, in which philanthropic fortunes are made early and philanthropic careers extend for decades. His critique of limited-life philanthropy seems directed to what might be called a manic spend-down, formalized relatively late in a donor’s life and executed with a certain degree of precipitousness. “[E]xperience, discernment, and a willingness to persevere and learn all depend on a time frame unrushed by some fast-approaching day of reckoning,” he cautions. But the day of reckoning faced by Bill and Melinda Gates, or by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, is hardly imminent. These philanthropic institutions, though marked for termination, will likely accrue the sort of institutional wisdom and experience, and are committed to the sort of long-term projects that Fleishman associates with legacy foundations. We don’t know yet how the Gates Foundation, which will likely reach its half-century mark before it closes, will manage its spend-down, but it’s hard to identify how differences in philanthropic practice between it and a perpetual foundation like the Carnegie Corporation stem from the institutions’ respective timeframes.
Fleishman definitely does manage to deflate some of the pretensions of limited-life philanthropy, but the affirmative case he makes for perpetuity is less strong. He develops a “case for endurance” that highlights “causes that plead for long-lasting philanthropy,” including the training of physicians; the support for religion, and the arts; and foundation-government collaboration. Some of these causes’ inclusion are intuitive; some are not. The theme of long-term survival of cherished institutions runs through them, paralleling Fleishman’s belief in the durability of major social ills. (Interestingly, Fleishman focuses on a number of Jewish philanthropies, and it is possible that their concern with peoplehood and survival has shaped his own attitude toward perpetuity. See Lila Corwin Berman’s important recent article on the “Financialization of American Jewish Philanthropy,” for more on American Jewish establishment’s embrace of perpetual endowments in the post-war years).
Finally, if certain social problems demand long-term attention, it’s not entirely clear why this would necessitate the attention of a perpetual institution, given the argument made by Julius Rosenwald and others, which Fleishman notes only in passing, that future generations will produce their own philanthropic wealth to address the problems, if they continue to be pressing. Fleishman’s position seems to lack faith—which could be considered somewhat graceless itself—in the wisdom of future philanthropists.
Which is all to say to that Fleishman does not settle the question of foundation lifespan. In fact, perhaps his book’s most significant contribution is to ensure that the question remains productively unsettled. This is an effort to which I am especially sympathetic. While Fleishman was writing his book, seeking to challenge what he perceived to be the hardening default of limited-life philanthropy, I was engaged in a sort of mirror-image research project (funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, no less), which sought to understand how another default approach to foundation lifespan coalesced: the presumption toward perpetuity that dominated the sector in the final decades of the twentieth century. In doing so, it became clear to me that in the first half of the twentieth century, attitudes toward foundation lifespan were admirably fluid. Many institutions were “discretionary” perpetuities, meaning that their boards maintained the option to spend-down. This openness entailed an active sort of superintendence. As McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, declared in his first annual report, “A foundation should regularly ask itself if it could do more good dead than alive.” He meant that foundations should constantly examine their timeframes and how–and whether–they reflected their broader priorities and missions. Many of the highest profile foundations did seem to have these conversations, which prevented a sector-wide default from forming (until, I argue, the tumult surrounding the Tax Reform Act of 1969).
Despite the vehemence of the case that Fleishman makes on behalf of perpetuity—or perhaps even because of it—his thoughtfulness is recruited into this broader, worthy project: compelling us to think anew about grant-making in time to ensure that the temporal dimensions of philanthropy receive the sustained attention they deserve.
Benjamin Soskis is the co-editor of HistPhil and a research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.