Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, December 27, 2004
Of course, as soon as you start talking about charitable giving, you raise - in specific cases but also in general - the problem of unintended consequences.

With investing, the objective is narrow: to make money. Fundamentally, you don't care about externalities because they are, well, external; you are trying to maximize the value of your investment.

But with charitable giving, the objective is to do good. So you have to take account of these externalities.

Sometimes they are very large. The International Rescue Committe does terribly important work. Millions of people around the world depend on them for their very lives. But: it is no less true that the existence of the IRC shapes geopolitical realities, and it is very hard to know in what way. It is entirely possible that there are wars that would have been shorter and more decisive were it not for the intervention of international humanitarians, and that while the bad guys might have won fewer people might have died. That's obviously not the case when you're talking about a natural disaster such as has just struck so many countries bordering the Indian Ocean, and the IRC does help out with natural disasters as well as man-made ones. But with those man-made disasters, unlike the natural ones, there's a feedback loop, where people learn from the presence of humanitarians and may take advantage of them.

In a case like this one, I think the question to ask is whether the organization in question is aware of as tries to counter the most egregious advantage-taking. For example: it's well-known that Hutu militias from Rwanda have operated in the refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and from these positions keep alive one of the world's bloodiest ethnic conflicts. Do the organizations running the camps realize this danger, and are they taking steps to try to prevent their camps from being used as "safe-houses" for warring factions? The IRC, according to their own materials, is alive to these problems. (At the other extreme is the UN, where there have been on the one hand allegations of rape and sex-trafficking by staffers, and on the other hand there is substantial evidence of active collaboration between UN staff and terrorist groups in Palestinian camps.) But even if they are alive to and try to prevent these problems, I'm sure their record isn't perfect. And that's something we all just have to live with to the extent that we can't correct it.

Or take something much smaller scale. The Stratford Festival's endowment is supposed to support, among other things, their experimental stage and their conservatory. Well and good. But how will these two eminently worthy projects distort the operation of the Festival as a whole? Will the existence of the experimental stage mean that the main stage takes fewer risks? Will the existence of the conservatory create an obligation to push graduates into roles they aren't really ready for (this is, after all, part of why they want to come to the conservatory: to have a chance to play Stratford)? Along with Shakespeare, other classic theater and some contemporary Canadian works, the Festival now regularly programs two major musicals from what I suppose you'd call the American Musical Canon - last year they put on Guys and Dolls and Anything Goes. About 50% of their revenue from ticket sales comes from the musicals, as I understand it. It is a very, very good thing that they have this cash cow. But it also inevitably affects the decisionmaking by the management of the Festival as to what they will program and what will get the lion's share of the financial resources.

Again, on balance I think the benefits outweigh the costs by a wide margin in each of these cases. But that doesn't mean that there are no costs to be cognizant of.

Or let's look at Hillel. I had a meeting recently with one of the people whose job it is to meet with people like me (i.e., with donors) to fill me in on their plans for taking the "next step" in terms of their mission. What's the next step? Well, according to my interlocutor, Jewish students on campus fall into three categories: there's about 20% for whom Jewish identity (religious or cultural) is already important to them. Hillel is doing a good job of reaching these students, providing them with a home and helping them to deepen their involvement. Then there's about 30% who are either entirely aware that they have a Jewish background, or for whom it is insignificant, or who are aware of their Jewish background but actively hostile to it. These students are not people Hillel is really focusing on trying to reach. Finally, there's about 50% who are aware they are Jewish but who are relatively lacking in knowledge or connection. These are the students Hillel is not reaching in large numbers now. And a major effort of the new leadership is focused on trying to reach this very large contingent of students.

Right now, the basic approach is the "smorgasbord" method: provide a lot of different "entry points" for students coming from very different perspectives. So: you provide space for a kosher kitchen, an Orthodox minyan, and so forth. You bring lecturers on topics related to Jewish history, culture and religion to campus. And you host a Passover seder, Friday-night dinners, etc. But you also bring contemporary Jewish musicians to campus, particularly those working in a contemporary idiom but with a Jewish cultural point of reference; you sponsor programs related to "social justice" to connect to the many left-liberal Jewish students for whom that kind of activity is what Judaism means to them; you send students to Israel on the Birthright program; you sponsor Jewish theater, Jewish dance, Jewish film; and so forth. One of the most effective programs for connecting Jewish students with the Jewish people and Jewish concerns is the Birthright Israel program. But also very effective, Hillel has found, is bringing Israelis - particularly young Israelis just out of the army - to campuses in America to talk to American Jewish students about what life is like there. That kind of personal connection is a whole lot more effective than a propaganda or guilt session.

Okay, so this is the direction the organization is going. So there are two objections to Hillel I can anticipate from my readers, which I will attempt to answer. The first: am I not promoting multi-culturalism, a Jewish identity at the expense of an American identity, by supporting an organization that tries to give Jews a stronger Jewish identity at a formative point in their adult lives?

To which I answer: yes, and no. I see nothing wrong with promoting a particularist identity, whether religious or cultural or otherwise, if it is grounded in something positive and constructive. An identity which consists entirely of resentment is not a very good identity. But an identity grounded in a strong cultural and religious tradition is a wonderful thing that enriches America as well as the individual in question.

Randolphe Bourne, in his essay on "transnational" America (his early 20th-century term for what we would now call multicultural America) considered the many immigrants from Europe and worried what would happen to their moral character if they should lose their own traditions but gain no new ones. He worried that they would fall prey to a newly-emergent popular culture whose values, moral and aesthetic, were shallow, and which would turn them into an undifferentiated mass of great power by virtue of its sheer size, but very dangerous for being culturally unmoored. Bourne therefore encouraged immigrants to retain their traditional cultures even as they learned how to be Americans. I think Bourne had a point. And I think that point has force when applied to an elite group like Jewish college students as much as it does when applied to the just-off-the-boat huddled masses of America's early 20th-century slums. I think it's a good thing when Chinese kids go to Chinese school, when Greek kids go to Greek school, and when Jewish kids go to Hebrew school. And I see no contradiction between this kind of activity and assimilating fully to American life.

But it is also crucial to distinguish between private efforts to keep up a tradition and a culture and public efforts to do so. I'm strongly against the latter, basically because I think this turns a minority culture into a political program, and thereby damages the minority culture, and because it institutionalizes the separation of Americans into groups, and thereby damages America. This kind of public act is wrong to a much lesser degree but for a similar reason that legally-enforced segregation is wrong. So while I applaud parents who try to ensure their children learn the language of their ancestors, I'm very strongly opposed to bi-lingual education, on both educational and national grounds.

Having said all that, though, that doesn't mean my hypothetical objector has no point at all. Of course encouraging a particularistic identity - of any sort - trades off against the development of a broader communal one. That's just something to be cognizant of, though.

The other objection I anticipate is that the "smorgasbord" approach to outreach inherently demeans the tradition by putting central matters like prayer and Torah study on an apparent equal level with periphera and ephemera like Jewish rap music. To which I also say: yes and no. Different organizations will, of necessity, be more stringent in their heirarchies. A synagogue that suggested that a Jewish film series is "just as good" as attending services on Shabbat morning is a synagogue with dire mission confusion. But by the same token, a klezmer-revival organization is going to be focused on the music, and should be. Hillel is not a synagogue. I asked this question of my interlocutor from Hillel in this fashion: don't you get complaints from Orthodox supporters when you sponsor, say, a Jewish gay and lesbian group? And don't you get complaints from feminist supporters when you, say, provide space for a traditional Orthodox congregation which segregates men and women at prayer? And he answered: not really. Which is, in my view, encouraging.

Encouraging, but with this caveats: that "diversity" and "tolerance" are not made a kind of quasi-religion that prevents people with differing views from expressing those views, and that the very different groups of students brought together under Hillel's umbrella really are encouraged to interact, rather than treat each other with indifference disguised as tolerance. That's a hard thing to achieve, but it's imporant - indeed, it's a vital part of Hillel's mission.

I think the right way to approach the ethics of philanthropy in general is thusly:

- Your obligations move out from yourself in concentric circles. You should be sure you've done your duty by your community, your church or synagogue, and so forth before taking on other burdens.

- Teach a man to fish. The old saw really is true, and you can feel a lot more satisfaction, a lot more of a sense of accomplishment, if you actually help solve problems instead of just treating them.
- Focus on "ends in view." Look enough steps ahead on the chess board and it becomes impossible to know what the impact of your actions will be. So don't sweat that. Support things that you believe in for their own sake and you're already starting off on the right foot.

- But be sure the organizations you support are cognizant of negative externalities they may create. This is their full-time job. If they are thinking about these questions, that's a very good sign.

- Be reality-based. Okay: say you're worried about hate crimes being committed against underage girls by tobacco companies on the internet. Before you give money to Stop Hate Crimes Against Underage Girls By Tobacco Companies On the Internet, try to find out whether the problem actually exists. It would be a real shame if it didn't.

- Measure success. Do the organizations you support have clear objectives? Can they tell if they are meeting those objectives? Do those metrics make sense? The best organizations talk in these terms. And, of course, you should not be supporting an organization that is spending all its money on fund-raising, or doesn't release proper financial records, or is otherwise less than above-board in its operations.

- Donate time as well as money. I'm actually really bad at this apart from my synagogue, and even there I'm not one of the most active members of the congregation. But I can say that you get a lot more satisfaction, and a lot better understanding, if you get involved personally with an organization instead of just writing a check.

- Balance breadth and depth. There are so many worthy causes out there, but you can't possibly get deeply involved in more than a handful of organizations. So don't. Feel free to make smaller donations to a large number of groups, but be sure to pick a handful that you really care about and really want to get involved in, and make larger donations to these.

- Give of love, not of guilt. A colleague was once involved in raising money to build a community center in his town. Now, he lived in a rather wealthy suburb, and the community center was going to be really state-of-the-art. And he was expected, of course, to make a major donation. In any event, he told me that he felt guilty about giving so much money to a building that was going to be used by his family and their wealthy neighbors, when there are so many needy people in the world. So I told him what I'm saying here: give of love, not of guilt. You want to give a nice gift to your community? Mazel-tov! They and you should enjoy it in good health. You want to do something about world hunger? Mazel-tov again; research the different organizations that work on this problem, find one you believe in, and give generously. If you give out of guilt, or if you don't give out of guilt, you'll be resentful, and that doesn't do anyone any good. So give of love.

- And therefore, set your own priorities. You know what your obligations are and what your interests are. So, based on that, you can set your philanthropic priorities. The fact that you read a cover story saying overpopulation is the most important problem facing the world today does not mean that you have to reorient your giving to focus on charities devoted to population control. You're only one person. You'll be more effective at changing the world if you care about what you're doing to change it.

Anyway, that's the way I see it.