The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


April 8, 2021

What's The Outlook?

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The difference between weather and climate is important. Weather alters constantly while climate changes are slow but the effects are long lasting. I’ve written before on the transition from Gothic architecture to Baroque and how that change reflected a larger and defining theological shift in society.  Gothic was focused on the hereafter while Baroque was shaped by the desire to make this life better instead of thinking only of eternity. “So the emphasis was not spires ‘reaching toward heaven’ but light, color, texture and art intended to draw people in – a kind of celebration of creation and the here and now.”

It was an alteration in worldview. A change in climate.

In the same way, you can follow the trends in literature, art, and music.  The period of ornate Victorian language transitions to the highly edited and simpler style of Hemingway that pared away every nonessential word.  Music shifted from symphonic to the almost formless style of John Cage.  Art is probably our most obvious record of change – from Rembrandt to Monet through Picasso to Jackson Pollock. Some are weather but some climate changes.

It is also true for philanthropy. There were the earlier periods of enormous concentrated wealth whose founders moved us from simple charity to organized giving. These were followed by foundations with professional staff pursuing “scientific philanthropy.”

Gradually the players are expanding from a relative few to include millions of individuals making gifts from mobile devices for thousands of causes. It is not innovation in a vacuum. These changes are a result of a shift in worldview and theology of the givers. Gifts are pointing less toward the heavens and more toward earth. They are directed toward rebalancing and not simply relief.

And we are seeing a move from elaborate systems of giving to more direct and less complicated.  It may be that GiveDirectly and others making direct cash payments to individuals are a predictable next phase driven by younger givers that leads us toward something less Gothic, complicated, and ornate to a form that is simpler, cleaner and more focused on the here and now. Less structure. More trust. Less control and more latitude.

Generational Themes

Every generation has themes and I have been listening to younger donors hoping to understand how theirs differ from the themes of my generation. For Christians, they are often reflected in the parables and Scripture passages used to describe giving. For ours, it was Paul’s emphasis on each person determining in their own minds what to give. Finding a particular giving passion to pursue was the ideal. We were confident in how generosity would be rewarded with even more “pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.” It was often about the rewards of giving. “You can’t outgive God.” What I am hearing now are the parables of the rich man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan, the Sheep and Goats, and the Rich Fool. There is an emphasis on the responsibility of wealth to do more than build endowments and make grants. There is a larger picture to consider and the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is being asked more seriously. It is not as much about individual blessing or laying up treasure in heaven as it is being joined together with others who have a claim on our lives.  It is not guilt about wealth but being aware of the disparity between the few who have the largest share of the wealth and the many who have not. There is an intention to rectify the imbalances.

You may have seen the recent interview on 60 Minutes with Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation. He is not the typical elite foundation head. Raised by a single mother in poverty in a small town in rural Texas, his roots are far removed from the Ivy League and exclusive networks of people who have enjoyed deep connections their entire lives. I think he speaks for many of those with whom I am talking. “Inequality is the greatest harm to our democracy because inequality asphyxiates hope.”  His argument is that generosity is insufficient. The real goal of giving should be justice.  And what is the difference between generosity and justice? “Generosity makes the donor feel good. Justice implicates the donor.” Justice means we make larger changes in ourselves and the system. Justice will be uncomfortable.

So, is this simply a change in the weather that will be a momentary fad driven by an influential foundation leader or will it be a change in the climate of philanthropy that we’ll look back on and see as a generation’s turning point?

What’s your outlook?

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the Gathering