An author’s reminder: Philanthropy isn’t defined by money

Oct 27, 2021, 12:34 PM | Updated: 5:00 pm

Lucy Bernholz talks about Chex Mix a lot.

Bernholz, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, doesn’t want people to think of only one type of giving — the headline-grabbing, 10-figure pledges from billionaires and their foundations.

Philanthropy, she says, is like the beloved bar snack. It has lots of different components, but they all contribute to making the party favorite tasty.

“If we only look for the pretzels,” she says, “we’re gonna miss the Chex Mix.”

For her new book, “How We Give Now: A Philanthropic Guide for the Rest of Us,” Bernholz traveled around America, speaking mainly to groups of low-income and working class people who donate their time, money and other resources, including online data about themselves.

She found no shortage of commitment to philanthropy from these people, who run giving circles, donate time at food banks or, as the volunteers of Safe Passage have done for more than a decade, make sure that children can travel to and from school safely through San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

The Associated Press spoke with Bernholz about her findings and how they shape philanthropy. She will discuss her work, along with some people who are profiled in her book at a forthcoming event, “Making a Difference Without Millions: How Americans Give,” a free virtual program co-sponsored by The Associated Press, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Conversation, on Nov. 4.

The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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Q: Why did you want to write this book?

A: The philanthropy industry really only ever counts giving money to nonprofits. When we don’t look at all these other things, we can’t possibly understand why there may be rises and dips in that one act. For most of us, our time, our money, our interests are not infinite. So if you’re choosing to do one thing, you may well not be choosing to do another. And we need to understand those dynamics much better.

Q: What Safe Passage does in San Francisco is a type of giving we don’t hear much about these days.

A: We’ve often forgotten that that kind of activity is philanthropy. It’s not the Gates Foundation; that’s something else. One of the things we heard, loud and clear, from the people we talked to in these workshops across the country is that all the things they think of as giving are actually about participating in their community, about participating in the world.

Q: Between new proposed tax laws and revelations about the U.S. becoming a tax haven for the ultra-wealthy, there has been a lot of discussion about how tax benefits affect philanthropic donations. Did you find that in your research?

A: It never came up in our conversations. Only when we brought it up. What’s fascinating about that is only 8% of Americans bother to take the charitable tax deduction on their tax return. Now, tax policy is pretty much the only policy idea the philanthropy industry has any interest in. They’re serving 8% of the population. And I know that 8% is not Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not Pierre Omidyar. It’s not Laurene Powell Jobs. They’ve all said: “We don’t care about the tax benefit. We’re gonna do an LLC, because that gives us more control and more anonymity.” So there’s some 8% who care. In poker, they’d call that a tell. If and until the nonprofit and philanthropic industries start advocating for really rich people to pay their taxes, I think the view of that whole industry as a wealth preservation mechanism is quite justified.

Q: There’s this current debate over the word philanthropy. There’s “little-p philanthropy,” which means caring for other human beings, and “capital-P philanthropy,” which is the Gates Foundation.

A: I don’t know if maybe this is a wishy-washy answer, but I don’t actually care that much about the word. But I think we’re really actually hurting ourselves as a democracy, we’re hurting ourselves as people, when our imagination is limited to “philanthropy = big foundation giving to nonprofits.”

Q: You mean people thinking that if they’re not giving MacKenzie Scott-type money somewhere then what they’re doing doesn’t really count?

A: There is an industry of “capital-P philanthropy” – promoters, the slew of accounting firms and legal firms, family offices and consulting firms like McKinsey, media attention, and, not to condemn some of my fellow scholars, but even the scholarship about philanthropy focuses in on the big guys. So it’s easy to understand that the rest of us don’t think we’re doing whatever that is. We’re not doing what Mackenzie Scott does. We’re not writing checks that are so big that they can fundamentally change what an organization does or draw attention to an issue. But we are keeping our communities going. There’s an enormous amount of power in aggregating small donations.

Q: Collective action matters.

A: What you can do is going to be more powerful if you do it with other people — whether there’s money involved or not. Maybe you can just get together with your neighbors and provide a warm meal for that person on your block who needs it. That will then lead toward bigger activism. I’d like to help people in the country see that you’re already doing this, and it matters and it can make a change. Let’s do more of it. Let’s celebrate it.

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To hear Bernholz speak at “Making a Difference Without Millions: How Americans Give” on Nov. 4 at 4 p.m., a free virtual event co-sponsored by The Associated Press, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Conversation, register at https://bit.ly/GIVERegister. The Associated Press receives support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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An author’s reminder: Philanthropy isn’t defined by money