The Giver’s Dilemma

Let’s say you have $50 million and want to give it away. Who would you give it to?

“To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.” — Aristotle

LAST AUGUST, WHEN George School issued a press release announcing Barbara Dodd Anderson’s unprecedented gift of $128.5 million, the floodgates, as it were, opened. While the school’s director, Nancy Starmer, said she’d expected a fair amount of media attention, nothing prepared her for the onslaught: the TV news trucks rumbling onto campus, the satellite dishes blooming like mushrooms, the phones ringing off the hook, the headlines in newspapers nationwide, all cheering Anderson’s benevolence, and the largest single donation to a private secondary school in American philanthropic history.

It gave the appearance that all this had, essentially, happened overnight: that 75-year-old Anderson, whose father had taught future multibillionaire Warren Buffett at Columbia University and made millions investing early in Buffett’s company, had, like a fairy godmother, waved her wand/pen under the cloak of night and cut a bank-breaking check, to which the administrators at the idyllic Bucks County Quaker school awoke the following morning with great surprise and delight. Actually, the process was long and, at times, complicated. “It’s called ‘stewarding a gift,’” Anne Storch, the school’s director of development, explains. “The discussion for this particular gift probably started 14 or 15 months ago.”

Anderson, a retired kindergarten teacher from Fresno, California, who graduated from George School in 1950, had previously given significant amounts to the school, including $5 million for a new library, and already was the school’s single most significant benefactor. Storch, class of ’67, had gotten to know her well, talking often with her on the phone, flying regularly to Northern California to meet with her, forging what Storch calls a “close friendship.” And so it was that when Anderson told her on the phone one day in 2006 that she’d been profoundly moved by Buffett’s donation of $37 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was looking “to do something” herself, Storch commenced a long dialogue with her, flying to Fresno as many as seven times.

Storch needn’t have worried. That the money would go to George School was never in question, Anderson’s accountant told me.

“It was hard for me at first, because it seems like a ghastly amount of money, but it’s going for a worthy cause,” Anderson acknowledged to the New York Times in one of the only interviews she’s granted. (The money will increase the school’s already considerable $77.2 million endowment, to help fund teachers’ salaries and financial aid.) “I’m 75 years old, I have Alzheimer’s, and I’m probably not going to be around a lot longer. So I might as well see the money do some good.”

Yet the straightforwardness in Anderson’s decision is rare. And the question of where to put one’s money raises other questions: whether all giving is the same, whether some charity is of a higher moral urgency and worth. This seems to have vexed most every would-be philanthropist from Aristotle to Conrad Hilton to Lee Iacocca to Bill Gates. As Andrew Carnegie said of his early charitable endeavors, “I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution.”

It’s a question that’s becoming increasingly apropos, as the wealthiest among us accumulate ever more wealth — the 400 richest Americans are today worth $1.54 trillion collectively, up from $238 billion just two decades ago — and, correspondingly, give ever more away. We are living now — ­according to the Foundation Center, a leading authority on American charity — in “the golden age of philanthropy.” Indeed, the number of philanthropic foundations the wealthy have formed has doubled since 1993, to more than 71,000; they distributed more than $36 billion in 2005, up from a previous high of $31.8 billion the year before. Philadelphia is in many ways ground zero for this conversation, since it is home not only to some of the richest Americans but also to some of the largest philanthropic foundations. About 2,000 are located in the Philly metro area, up from 1,500 in 1997; in 2005, they distributed $1.8 billion. Sidney Kimmel alone has given away more than $495 million through his foundation. In one year — 2006 — the Annenberg Foundation paid out $280 million.

And so the question: How do they decide who gets their dough?

GIVING CAN BE both large and small, personal and impersonal, utterly sensible and seemingly arbitrary. Patterns of giving are as different as the individuals behind them.

The super-philanthropic typically establish foundations, like Bill and Melinda Gates. This is the route H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the cable magnate-turned-former-billionaire, went, after making the extraordinary decision to distribute all his wealth within his lifetime. The Lenfest Foundation, which so far has distributed roughly $130 million, operates like a small company, with a board of directors that oversees the giving. Funds are distributed in one of two ways: either through an application process, or through Lenfest’s and his wife’s personal recommendations. The foundation focuses on culture, arts education and the environment — what Bruce Melgary, the director of the foundation, calls Lenfest’s “lifelong interests” — and Lenfest has taken a literal approach to giving back to the community, distributing primarily where his cable company operated, in Eastern Pennsylvania, Northern Delaware and South Jersey.

Lenfest, like many of the country’s most philanthropic, rarely discusses charity (he declined to be interviewed), at least in part for fear of attracting counterproductive attention. A story he participated in for the Inquirer not long ago generated a maelstrom of requests for assistance, from the legitimate to the impossible (medical bills, mortgage payments, help taking children to Disney World).

Some big givers’ life stories seem to lead almost inexorably to their charities of choice. That was true of Anderson, who had been sent to George School when her mother was ill and was treated exceptionally well there. And it was true for Rena Rowan Damone, the 79-year-old multimillionaire clothes designer who rose up out of War and Peace — literally. In Poland, where she was born, the Russian government accused her parents of sedition in 1940, and sent her, her mother and her sister to Siberia, where they were dumped in the middle of a field. They were homeless till a Mongolian family took them in. (Her father was arrested separately; they ultimately reunited in Persia.)

Eventually, Rowan Damone would marry, make her way to America, and, with Sidney Kimmel, co-found Jones New York. She became one of the nation’s wealthiest women. And with that, she says, comes great obligation.

“All my life I was fighting for survival, and I feel that God has been very good to me,” Rowan Damone says, “and so I had to give some of it back.”

Her mission is helping single mothers overcome homelessness. It began with the Rowan House at 39th and Powelton, which houses 26 struggling families and offers counseling, health care, children’s programs, and education and job training for the mothers. With Project H.O.M.E., Rowan Damone and Sister Mary Scullion launched Rowan Homes, a program to convert abandoned buildings and vacant lots into 75 units for homeless families in North Philadelphia. (Rowan Damone met and married, in 1998, singer Vic Damone, after she asked him to perform as part of a fund-raiser for the homeless.)

For Lynne and Harold Honickman, one of the wealthiest and most philanthropic couples in the city, giving is rooted not in personal experience, but in their Jewish faith. I met them recently for breakfast at Lacroix, inside the Rittenhouse, where they live (as do the Damones). Harold, 74, owns a Pepsi soda and juice bottling business that his father first launched in South Jersey, and was until recently on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, with a net worth of $850 million. An attractive older couple, warm and unpretentious, the Honickmans speak in extraordinarily soft voices, radiating a calm that only the very, very rich could possess. The restaurant staff fluttered quietly over us, refilling our goblets of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice relentlessly until Lynne finally, to her credit, told them politely that we were fine.

“You know, in our religion it’s not called charity, it’s called sedaka, and sedaka literally means ‘to repair the world,’” Lynne explained. She’s a member of the wealthy Korman family of Philadelphia, and at 71 looks a decade younger. “And we’re asked to try to help repair the world, and if you help one person get through something tough, you save the world. I don’t think we ever had a long, deep, intellectual ­discussion — we just did it.”

As it is for Rowan Damone, homelessness is of particular concern to the Honickmans. Lynne, who is essentially a full-time philanthropist, also works closely with Sister Mary Scullion. With the Roberts family of Comcast, the Honickmans funded the construction of the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs, a three-story, $13 million, 38,000-square-foot community center in North Central Philadelphia. It’s a state-of-the-art refuge for residents of the neighborhood, providing services to 1,000 people, primarily children, who come for a variety of programs, from after-school care to GED classes to computer instruction to lessons in fine arts and music.

But Rowan Damone and the Honickmans are unusual in their approach. Eileen Heisman, who is president of the Jenkintown-based National Philanthropic Trust, a charity that helps donors distribute money, says wealthy philanthropists sometimes overlook society’s neediest, because they perceive such causes as “not as sexy. You don’t see your name in lights for giving grants to a homeless shelter,” she explains.

On the flip side, “Wealthy people know academic institutions because they went to them,” she says. “They know arts and culture because they’re a part of that world. They don’t know nonprofits that serve the poor. You give to things you’re familiar with. There are people who step out of that model, but it’s rare.”

That paradigm of upper-class charity is borne out by Philadelphia philanthropists’ largest reported gifts, such as Joseph Neubauer’s recent $25 million to the University of Chicago, Walter Annenberg’s $100 million to the Peddie School (the previous record that Barbara Dodd Anderson’s gift broke), Lenfest’s $100 million to Columbia, and Sidney Kimmel’s $35 million toward the construction of the music center that shares his name.

Rowan Damone agrees, telling me she has little trouble raising funds for breast cancer but struggles to attract donors to her anti-homelessness projects. “The philosophy of some people is, donate money to a museum or donate money to the arts. Theater — it’s very chic, and the homeless are not chic enough for a lot of people. I could mention some names, but I won’t. What I also find in people that have a lot of money, sometimes they will give only where their name is very prominent.”

Not so the Honickmans. A great lover of photography and poetry, Lynne decided to fund, through her foundation, an annual photography and poetry prize, because “When I came into it, those were the two underserved art forms.” Outside of her foundation (because of IRS rules that preclude political action), she has just founded Moms Against Guns, an advocacy group that aims to motivate more women to vote, and to sign 50,000 letters to flood Harrisburg for stricter gun laws. She was inspired not only by the ever-­escalating murder toll, but also by shootings that have hit close to home — close to the learning center, that is. “I practically committed arson trying to get these two drug houses on the block shut down,” she says. After a visit to the Constitution Center one day, she and Harold decided that because some children in Philadelphia don’t have the money for admission, they would pay for every fifth-grader in the city to go for free. And every Christmas they take 100 North Philadelphia kids to a movie, then to dinner at the Rittenhouse.

But Eileen Heisman’s point about personal experience driving where the rich give does apply to Lynne Honickman and Rowan Damone. They’ve both survived cancer; Honickman went to Jefferson for treatment, Rowan Damone to the University of Pennsylvania. Both were taken aback by the sterility, the overall lack of cheerfulness, at the hospitals’ facilities. “When I was waiting to have radiation,” Rowan Damone recalls, “I would see young people, old people, babies with ­cancer, waiting for treatment. It was just such a depressing place.” Harold Honickman accompanied his wife for a mammogram at Jefferson, spending a couple hours in the waiting room. “There were no windows,” he recalls. “It was dark and lightless, so depressing.” When Lynne emerged from her test, they agreed that something needed to be done.

Poof. The Rena Rowan Breast Center opened in 2000, and the Jefferson-­Honickman Breast Imaging Center in 2006 — both state-of-the-art, both beautifully designed, full of light and color. It’s a perk of extreme wealth — when you’re rich enough, and something needs to be made right, why not?

IN A 1999 watershed essay on poverty, philosopher Peter Singer presented a series of moral conundrums meant to challenge our perceptions about our culpability in the suffering of others. One, first posited by his Princeton colleague Peter Unger, involves a man named Bob who owns a Bugatti, a very expensive, very rare car. Bob, who is close to retirement, saved all his life to buy the Bugatti, and the car, which he can’t afford to insure, is his pride and joy. One day he takes a ride, parks his car near two intersecting railroad tracks, and begins walking beside them. Suddenly he spots an empty runaway train speeding toward a child standing on the tracks, too far away to warn. There is a switch he can throw to divert the train down the other set of tracks where the Bugatti is parked, thus saving the child at the expense of his car. Now, Bob needs that car — he plans to sell it after his retirement, to provide for his future. And so he chooses to not throw the switch. The child is struck and dies.

Bob’s decision is clearly immoral. But not so fast, Singer and Unger warn: The rest of us are just as guilty, given that we have just as much wherewithal to save lives, but choose not to. We could give UNICEF or Oxfam America just $200, they argue, to buy safe passage for a young child in the Third World through his sixth year, the most precarious stretch for children living in poverty. Pressing the point, Unger and Singer argue that the decision to throw the switch is before us at this very moment: The toll-free telephone number for UNICEF is 800-486-4233; for Oxfam, 800-776-9326. Did you put down this magazine and dial? There, Unger and Singer say — you made the same decision as Bob.

But Singer believes it isn’t just those of us who don’t give who ought to be questioning our morality. When I meet him at his office at Princeton, Singer argues that those who are philanthropic — even those who give considerable amounts of their wealth away — have blood on their hands if they’re not funneling their giving specifically to alleviate suffering. “To me, the amount of good that charity does is really how we should judge it,” says Singer, who donates about a third of his annual income to Oxfam America. The world, of course, has big problems. “Does Philadelphia, which the last time I looked wasn’t so badly endowed for places to listen to music, need to have a bigger, newer symphony hall?” Singer asks. “Do these universities need to increase their endowments, and so on?”

Even if you’re not on Singer’s moral bandwagon, it’s a reasonable question. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, only about 25 percent of the largest charitable gifts given over the past five years — those of $50 million or more — went directly to alleviate human suffering; the rest — three-quarters — went to universities, private foundations, hospitals and museums. And of that 25 percent, funds distributed by a single charitable entity — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — accounted for fully half.

 Consider this: A year ago, it was announced that Thomas Jefferson University planned to sell Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece The Gross Clinic to a Wal-Mart heiress who would move it to a museum in Arkansas. The city was shocked, even outraged. In less than a month, $30 million was raised to thwart the sale, with many of Philadelphia’s most famous philanthropists donating huge sums. All told, $68 million was secured to keep the painting here permanently. It was an extraordinary outpouring of giving, the likes of which this city had never before seen. Who would argue that Eakins’s Philadelphia masterpiece belongs anywhere but in Philadelphia? But does it say something profound about contemporary philanthropy when the city’s most successful fund-raising endeavor saved an eight-foot-by-six-and-a-half-foot painting?

Still, I wondered whether there wasn’t significant moral worth to be found in any philanthropic gift, particularly in funding research. How, for example, could anyone take issue with Sidney Kimmel giving millions to cancer research, including a recent gift of $150 million to Johns Hopkins’s cancer center — research that ultimately could help find a cure for a disease that kills 7.6 million people around the world annually? (“We’re living in a world in which 90 percent of the funding for medical research is directed towards diseases that really only affect 10 percent of the global burden of disease” is Singer’s reply.) And couldn’t Gerry Lenfest’s donation to Columbia University for environmental research bring about extreme good, should that research lead to some viable solution for reversing climate change, a dilemma that threatens human beings of every socioeconomic background around the world? (Singer had to ponder that one, but decided it was like giving the university a lottery ticket.)

Consider something else that’s hard to quantify — the trickle-down effects giving to the arts can have, beyond art’s intrinsic benefit. How, for instance, can one measure the difference the Kimmel Center has made to this city? Many believe that it ­single-handedly turned around the Avenue of the Arts and a significant portion of Center City, spurring widespread redevelopment that has ultimately brought about countless jobs and millions in tax ­revenue — revenue that benefits the city in ways large and small, from enabling additional social services to hiring more police officers to bettering schools. Indeed, a recent report found that the greater cultural sector provides 40,000 jobs in the region and generates $158 million in taxes returned to the community.

Fundamentally, though, giving is about individual choices, and you will, I suspect, want to know about me. What have I given? What have I done to make a difference, to feed the hungry, to pay for a cheap and easy immunization that will provide a child in the Third World a chance to live to adolescence, to ease the suffering? With the exception of the few dollars I try to give every day to the homeless begging near Broad Street on my walk across Center City, the answer is … nothing. I will, of course, move quickly to rationalize this, to exonerate myself, to explain why I don’t. I will argue that I am young, still very much struggling myself, in serious debt, poorly paid, without many of the material trappings of success I reason I am entitled to before I reach a point where I can give, which is to say to give without serious personal sacrifice.

The word “altruism” comes from the French for “other people.” There is, there would seem, an inherent propulsion to want to help. Some philanthropists give to preserve great works of art, others to support orchestras, to grow schools’ endowments, to construct buildings that will announce their names. Some give quietly, anonymously, to feed the needy, to save a life. But the point is this: They give.