Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Winner-Take-All Philanthropy

28896220393_9a39e66c35_cAbout two weeks ago, I read a New York Times article about the latest round of MacKenzie Scott's philanthropy. The article caught my eye for two reasons: first, a $2.7 billion round of donations is massive. And second, a lot of the money was going to arts organizations (and, as the article noted, dance organizations).

At this point, I kind of have a long history of attending dance performances. I'd been to very few before I moved to New York and met my now-wife. I'm more of a music person, personally, but my wife is a dancer and a dance teacher. So I'm familiar with several of the names on this latest round of funding.

And what was interesting to me was the framing. The donations were framed as being made to "organizations[] which are themselves historically underfunded." Which is hugely laudable and maybe not entirely accurate. Two names especially caught my eye: Alvin Ailey ($20 million) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (some amount that I can't find online in a quick search).

Both are amazing artistic organizations (and I'll also note that, in the first year or two that we were married, my wife taught in the children's program at Ailey and she gets tickets every time they come to Chicago). I'm sure that, like every other performing arts organization, both suffered significantly through the pandemic.

But also, both are fundraising powerhouses. In 2018, Ailey had more than $48 million of revenue and net assets of $188 million. Jazz at Lincoln Center also had about $48 million of revenue and net assets of $223 million. (I suspect in both cases their buildings represent a significant portion of their net assets.)

I want to be clear here: both organizations will be able to put these gifts to good use. And again, I'm entirely sure that both need the money. But it struck me as interesting that, from a legal perspective, we don't differentiate between organizations that really need money and those that need it less. (And lest you get me wrong here: Scott also made a $3 million donation to Urban Bush Women, a dance company I wasn't familiar with but that, in 2018, had total revenues of just over $1 million and assets of just under $800,000.)

Is it good that money tends to flow to charities that already have money? I don't currently have a strong opinion on it. And I absolutely think it is great that Ailey and Jazz at Lincoln Center and Urban Bush Women and all of the other organizations got money that will help them continue to employ artists, continue to function, and continue to educate. Still, it's important as a society that we think about how and what we subsidize. And I'm not entirely sure we want a winner-take-all philanthropy.

Image: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre - Revelations. © Photo Gert Krautbauer. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Samuel D. Brunson


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