Wednesday, December 10, 2008


How does President-elect Barack Obama view the role of private philanthropy in the civic life of the nation, especially now?

There is not much of a record and little is known of his giving proclivities. We know the plight of the economy is his first order of business as it must be and with government funds and energies diverted to bailouts and massive public spending there is and will be far less for all kinds of private charities. The prognosis for private giving in the near term - at least a year and maybe longer - is uniformly gloomy. We can expect President Obama to urge on private giving and we can expect him to encouurage all of us to donate to the charities of our choice. But is that enough?

Like FDR Obama understands the presidency is a bully pulpit and I hope he might use it to convene a “White House Summit Conference on Philanthropy” next year or the following at the latest. (The last one was held in 1975). I would bring the best and the brightest together. Here are just a few examples to get the dialog moving …

  • The gross product of American philanthropy has been stuck at around 2% of GDP for as long as giving trends have been measured. Why hasn’t the needle moved in a country of such wealth? Why aren’t more people giving more money to US and international charity? What can the government do through tax policy or otherwise to encourage greater public involvement?
  • Private foundations are sitting on almost a trillion dollars worth of assets. They claim the income that collective corpus generates makes possible their annual grant making. First, where is it written that private foundations should exist in perpetuity (aside from their charters)? Second, after a generation or two why shouldn’t they be required to transfer their assets to a community foundation or to spend them down and liquidate? Third, why isn’t there a sliding payout scale with the wealthiest having to spend far more than 5% a year on grant making (when most of them earn in the double digits on their portfolios) and maybe the smaller, newer ones be given say ten years of lower payouts maybe 3.5-4% of assets?
  • If the SEC’s oversight of Wall Street (which is let’s face it famously de minimus) was as lax as the IRS’ oversight of charities, anyone of the presidential candidates would likely be pounding a shoe (or a pump) on the table. Is there a reasonable regulatory standard possible at the federal level? And could it to some degree supersede the crazy quilt of state regulation that ranges from the ridiculous to the outmoded?
  • So-called “faith based” philanthropy – an extension of President Bush’s view of the cosmos – has been directed mostly at human service agencies. Yet this grouping has shown the greatest decline in private support of any category of charity (according to Giving USA Foundation data). And they have also suffered the deepest cuts in federal aid. Why?

The Giving Institute of which the Oram firm is a member is going to associate with others to develop the convening power necessary to bring this off. Our new chairman Nancy Raybin has asked me to take this on;I will do all I can to move the idea along. There is already considerable interest among charity leaders in helping the President create an agenda for phianthropy as the November 13th Special Report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy makes clear.

If you have ideas for the “Summit” let us know!


RobB. said...

Suggestions for the Summit
1. Hold it on April 15 to put the focus on the IRS for its lame oversight and so taxpayers will make the link between giving and trimming their tax bill.
2. Invite Rick Warren (and Bills Clinton and Gates)

The Oram Group, Inc. (c) 2008 said...

Thanks for your comment. Sorrry to be a bit behind in answering.