Zombie Philanthropy

In the season 4 finale of Z Nation (Spoiler Alert), the show’s intrepid world-saving survivalists set off to find the now zombified POTUS. Discouraged, they learn that they have arrived too late. POTUS has been replaced, about 60 times over, in a diminishing succession of predecessors that have also met a variety of post-apocalyptic deaths. The now reigning POTUS was previously secretary of some instantly forgettable department. The good news is that it’s a woman (finally?). The bad news is that she’s helping stage a massive “reset,” which may or may not mean burning the world alive or releasing a flesh eating disease—the season conclusion was confusing…

We are halfway through a second really bad year with our own POTUS, and, no, Jon and I aren’t making an analogy that a mostly half-dead zombie government is highly more effective and less scary than our existing government. The tea leaves aren’t stirring up a good blend, however, and nonprofit leaders and hungry consultants know that most streams of government funding are closing up shop and headed toward a private sector near YOU! Have you hugged a foundation program officer today? Of course you haven’t…no one has…they’d cut us.

Here’s the analogy that every good nonprofit soldier, Z-Nation Lt. Roberta Warren survivor hero, is suffering through these days…and it’s only getting harder. Z-Nation was a country felled by tragedy and hard times. It’s leadership had no real plan of succession – just an endless domino game that lacked any sort of tactical maneuvering, battle plan or defense strategy. In the end, their leaders relied on the back-up to the back-up plan: blowing shit up. Philanthropy—despite being led by highly intelligent and capable leaders across all fields—is increasingly defined by narrowing perspectives and a constipated range of giving. Philanthropy is, for our times, about as deft and vibrant as the zombie government that Lt. Warren and her team ultimately had to kill off in a secret bunker in Virginia. For the record, this blog is also not condoning killing off philanthropists in Virginia…that would make our job so much harder. We just want philanthropy to be a little less dead.

Let’s look at one important trend in this Zombie Philanthropy. At the beginning of the year the Chronicle of Philanthropy gave a breakdown of various sector-based categories that its top 50 philanthropists spent $14.7 billion in giving.

The top tier of gifts was spent accordingly: 1) $9B Foundations; 2) $1.8B Colleges/Universities; 3) $790M Hospitals and Medical Centers; and 4) 361M Donor Advised Funds (DAF).

As any fundraiser knows, #1 and #4 are largely the same, except the chances of getting into a DAF is about as good as getting a McArthur Genius Award. It exists. A pinprick in the universe of nonprofit professionals gets awarded a McArthur in a lifetime. Chances are, for both a McArthur and a DAF, you will neither know how to apply, what to apply for, or who to send your application to. For monies parked in a DAF, or family/public foundation, most stick to the max yearlypayout of a measly 5%; every year we see a more limited pool of interest based causes with increasingly stricter ways of spending money (it’s OK for the donor to get a livable salary, just not you); a limping-along grantmaking process; and foundation officers that are genetically bred to ward off solicitous development officers and ensure an iron gate policy tougher to access than a decent health plan.

Basically, with foundations and DAFS at this point, we have a kind of ouroboros philanthropy – a snake eating its own tail. I guess the good news is that it’s not a zombie. The bad news is that it’s billions of tax-free dollars sitting stagnant, year after year, decade after decade, waiting…for…the…next…grant…cycle…

The next massive movement of philanthropic spending is colleges and universities. Let’s assess how this is working out for most families today, since we know, on average, that those dollars are typically poured into buildings, pet donor projects and research. Is college affordable yet? How are those student loans doing? Are we breaking the racial, cultural and economic divide between whodoes and does not attain higher education? The resounding answer is no. Philanthropy is reflective of the families that provide the gifts, not of the public need. The money pours in and petrifies, or, perhaps, crystalizes, assuring our economic, racial and cultural class barriers will remain for decades to come.

And finally, Hospitals and Medical Centers – Have you visited your local or remote city today? If so, you probably have thought…WTF…when did they build THAT? Bright, shiny new medical centers are the focal point of most small and large cities today, promising compassionate care, community response and cutting-edge technology. Philanthropists, companies and foundations seem to swoon over the chance to pour money into these centers and their coveted love letters are the outcomes models proffered by the chief medical teams. I’m sure those private correspondences and long-term promises are grand in scheme. Quick question: How’s healthcare going for the average family…you know, insurance wise…paying for all this compassionate care, cutting-edge technology. It’s still not good, right? In fact, we know the devastating reality of healthcare today. These facilities might as well be beautiful tombs. Private philanthropy means nothing if the average family can’t pay for the doctors, nurses and technology inside that massive building that probably used to be a block of affordable housing units for 100 families.

We’d probably be in a better position to fight today’s breed of zombie philanthropy if a DAF could actually automate its lifeless endowment, shuffle-drag it’s millions north of Broadway and sink its teeth into us. It’s so much easier when you have the teeth marks and blood to prove that a zombie is really just a zombie, and not Fidelity Investment’s latest and greatest fund to help “poor children.” Personally, I’m waiting for the back-up plan to the back-up plan. I’m curious what a philanthropic re-set will look like. We’re certainly not headed for a government sector takeover anytime soon—hopefully the next course of action isn’t of the flesh-eating variety. Either way, we know one thing, nothing is moving anywhere anytime quickly.

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