Turning Wealth Into Influence, How Elite Philanthropy Is Shaping Our Society

Friday, May 5, 2017

David Callahan is coming to San Diego on Wednesday, May 17th at 7:30pm at Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla as part of his national book tour to discuss and sign his book The Givers. This event is free and open to the public. Reserved Seating is available when the book is pre-ordered from Warwick's for the event. Only books purchased from Warwick's will be signed. Please call the Warwick's Book Dept. (858) 454-0347 for details.

David Callahan has been on the national stage for some time now contributing to discourse via his seven published books including The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, and shining a light on the issues of economic and political inequality, moral values, professional ethics and business. Many SDG members will know David’s contributions to the sector by way of his work at Inside Philanthropy, a site he founded and is its current editor. For those that don’t receive the daily updates via email (which, we highly recommend!) Inside Philanthropy is a media site that is digging every day to get the inside scoop on foundations and major donors.

Callahan’s new book, The Givers, provides readers with an inside look at the world of big philanthropy - and his analysis of how these elite philanthropists are quietly wielding ever more power to shape American life.

His book has created quite the buzz in the sector and grabbed the attention of the broader populous through intriguing book reviews and interviews with the New York Times, TIME, and The Atlantic. In an exclusive interview with San Diego Grantmakers Director of Strategic Advancement, Ryan Ginard, Callahan takes time from his current book tour to discuss how philanthropy is uniquely positioned to take on risk, the future role of regional grantmaking associations and of course, the new administration’s effect on all of our work.

Ryan Ginard (SDG): Congratulations on your new book The Givers. What has been the response from the sector to its release and your ensuing book tour?

David Callahan: The Givers has generated a fair amount of interest in the sector. During my national book tour, a number of philanthropy groups offered to host events around the book, which was great, and more such events are scheduled going forward. I think funders who work in legacy foundations are keen to know more about the new donors coming onto the scene. And lots of people feel it's important to engage the larger questions about democracy and philanthropy that my book raises, although there is plenty of disagreement when it comes to my own take on these issues. More debate is a good thing in our sector, so I'm happy my book is sparking conversation.

Interviewing the biggest major living donors in the country must have provided some unique insight and reasoning behind the donor intent of people who you describe as ‘elite philanthropists’. Who was your favorite philanthropist to talk with during this entire process?

There quite a few intriguing philanthropists in The Givers and it was fascinating to dig deeper into their thinking. I found John and Laura Arnold, who have a foundation based in Houston, especially thoughtful in describing how they have approached large-scale giving. They are tapping a hedge fund fortune in a quest to improve a number of areas of public policy.

The ‘disrupters’ chapter in the book was a fascinating look into the giving approaches of new billionaires such as Sean Parker and Dustin Moskovitz who have come to prominence on the back of their tech empires. Is putting up ‘risk capital’ in philanthropy an important evolution for the sector or a waste of important core support for those in need?

One of philanthropy's greatest strengths is that it can take risks in a way that government cannot. Yes, there's always the possibility that money will be wasted -- and plenty of money has been wasted. But experimentation can also lead to new breakthroughs and solutions. So I think it's a good thing that many new philanthropists embrace risk, as long as they do so responsibly. It's one thing to back experiments in a lab; it's quite another support risky projects that disrupt entire communities, as some funders have done in pursuing changes in K-12 education. Funders need to be very careful when people's lives are affected by their risk-taking.

You write about the rise of philanthropic networks and other kinds of intermediaries for giving. Why do you think today's philanthropists are embracing different kinds of institutions to do their grantmaking?

The traditional foundation seems to be losing popularity as a way to give money. Many of the new donors turn to donor-advised funders, networks, and consultants to do their giving. Younger philanthropists don't want to lock themselves into a set structure, like a foundation, when their views and plans are still evolving. Many are also still busy with their careers and don't have the time to supervise full-time staff. Also, community foundations and donor networks offer a lot of support to help with learning, which is important to new donors entering philanthropy.

What roles do you see regional associations like San Diego Grantmakers having in the future as more new donors come on the scene?

I think they have a critical role to play to help new donors get oriented to a region's nonprofit landscape, understand key issues, and find partners to collaborate with. The challenge is getting these donors involved in regional associations since many don't have foundations with staff. It's very important that these institutions are inclusive of consultants and staff of donor-advised funds, since they are often the ones working with the new donors to shape grantmaking.

How do you see the Trump Administration approaching the rules governing the charitable sector this term? For example, do you think the Johnson Amendment might be repealed, effectively increasing the politicization of philanthropy?

It's too early to say. President Trump recently signed an executive order that seeks to allow religious organizations to engage in more political activity. But ultimate authority on this matter lies with Congress, which has not yet acted. Meanwhile, though, it looks like the charitable tax deduction will not be targeted for reduction by the administration -- although, again, Congress could go in a different direction. What does seem certain is that there will be cuts in government spending, which will put more pressure on foundations and nonprofits to make up the difference. Over the long run, I see philanthropy wielding ever more power as government struggles with budget problems.

This year's Forbes Billionaires List contained 5 with San Diego ties. One of those 5 was the Spanos family who recently relocated their NFL franchise (and core of their wealth) to Los Angeles, presumably with all their future charitable dollars in tow. Is big philanthropy geographically fickle?

For all the global and national ambitions of today's donors, many are still very focused on their own communities and regions. About half of all charitable donations are made by local donors to local causes. I don't see that changing.

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The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age is available now through Knopf and Penguin Random House and available from most bookstores and online sellers.

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