Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Conservative Philanthropist View of the Times Ahead

In a recent Wall Street Journal Opinion Editorial, dated December 27, 2008, reporter Naomi Schaefer Riley interviews Mr. William (Bill) Simon, the son of the late William E. Simon who was a treasury secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and who made his fortune in investment banking.  Ms. Riley reports that "the senior Simon spent almost a quarter century as president of The John M. Olin Foundation, where he worked tirelessly on behalf of the idea of donor intent, making sure that those funds were going only to causes Mr. Olin would have approved of."  The younger Simon, Mr. Bill Simon, credits his father with ushering in a conservative renaissance while running the Olin Foundation, which he says was the intent of John M. Olin, the foundation's founder.  Mr. Bill Simon, the younger Simon, today runs The William E. Simon Foundation, a foundation established by his late father in his late father's name.  For me, the article begins one way and ends another.  It further concerns me that Mr. Simon has political aspirations.  He intends to run for governor or lieutenant governor of California in 2010.  He worked in the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani, and he unsuccessfully ran for California governor in 2000 and 2003. 

Mr. Simon begins the interview discussing the importance of donor intent.  He applauds the A&P heirs who recently prevailed against Princeton University, insisting that the University more closely adhere to the donor's wishes that the monies be used for promoting public service.  Ms. Riley reports:

Respecting "donor intent" is a deeply significant issue, since it gets to the heart of why individuals are even willing to establish philanthropic foundations.  And Bill Simon's take on the Princeton dispute is unequivocal.  "I give kudos to the Robertsons for fighting the battle as long as they did.  It took a lot of guts and a lot of courage," he tells me.

As the article progresses, Mr. Simon discusses his father's approach to maintaining strict adherence to donor intent -- simply have the foundation cease to exist (i.e., sunset) after a certain number of years.  This sunsetting of the foundation prevents, in his opinion (and the opinion of his father), the foundation from drifting away from the donor's intent.  It is his belief that keeping the foundation alive for too long permits the donor's intent to be forgotten.  He says that the Ford Foundation is an example of a foundation that has existed so long that it has moved away from Henry Ford's intent (and will).  He further states that, "'As I get a little bit older I can see the wisdom of Dad's advice,' he says, noting that 'people's behaviors change.  . . . You have to be targeted in your focus and it's harder to do that as you . . . get further away from the donor.'"

As I read on, it occurred to me that Mr. Simon and I see the roles of foundation giving and charities through different eyes.  He speaks of the important conservative policy agendas ushered in by foundations like the Olin Foundation who he says "usher[ed] in a renaissance in conservative ideas over the past generation."  He also makes the claim that the Olin Foundation, under his father's leadership, "donated to institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution and the Manhattan Institute .  And it supported the work of scholars like Allan Bloom, Samuel Huntington [(just died, Dec. 24, 2008)] and Irving Kristol." [ed. - Links added by AMT]  I began to wonder if this was such a good thing for "me," an African American woman who grew up in a small low-income community in middle America. 

Mr. Simon went on to share his views in the wake of President-elect Obama's election, which he clearly sees as a sidelining (temporarily) of the conservative renaissance.  He suggests that this is a time for retooling the conservative agenda.  He lambaste Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley  for calling for increased spending of endowment funds or face more regulation, and efforts in the California legislature to achieve "increased racial  and gender diversity among the state's foundation boards, staffs and grantees."  He views these calls as unnecessary attempts to needlessly regulate charities.  I, on the other hand, welcome more diversity and less conservative viewpoints, and have, at times, felt "harmed" by the conservative policies advocated by the  think tanks he positively identifies with. 

In the end, I had an unsettled feeling that the war went underground.  I am unsettled because I am not quite convinced of the battleground and why we are fighting.  I saw the election of Barack Obama as a major step forward in race and class politics in America.  The America I have hoped for all of my life.  Upon reading Mr. Simon's views, it reminded me not to go to sleep.  The dream spoken of by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is still not at hand.  Surprise! Surprise!  We all don't think alike, nor should we.

I encourage you to click here to read the full article for yourself.  How did it make you feel?  Any thoughts?


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"People will not sell their houses to fund charitable giving," he says, and of course the metaphor (of which Mr. Simon is pathetically unconscious) is that so long as we continue to shackle ourselves to the so-called "free enterprise system" he and his foundation defend, we will never make any progress toward a more humane existence, a world in which people will give (not sell) their homes so that no one has to starve. He is also naive if he thinks that the present "economic crisis" is a moment in which Grassley will not press to force mandatory endowment payouts. The federal fisc is starving for dollars, and these funds are sitting on mountains of untaxed money. Do the math.

Posted by: r. | Dec 31, 2008 1:14:48 PM

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