The Long Tail of Philanthropy

Tuesday 28 November 2006 at 22:53

I'm volunteering at Columbine Elementary by teaching a weekly Challenge Math class to fourth graders. I also volunteered to write some software for Impact on Education for their classroom mini-grants and online donations. I got started on these projects in part because our invasion of Iraq really angered me and ranting here didn't bring much peace of mind about it. Boulder Valley School District decided last year to switch from mostly Macs to Windows. In both cases my efforts to appeal to the government leaders had no measurable effect. The recent noise I've made about fingerprinting kindergartners mostly reinforced my cynicism. I had an effect there, but only because I was around to help some friends make a stink about it. The past few years have been a school-of-hard-knocks lesson in civics. I'm no longer content to beg the government to make the changes I want to see in the world. I want to be directly involved myself. In that sense, I am a philanthropist.

Philanthropy involves the donation or granting of money to various worthy charitable causes. It is seen as a way to directly effect change in society without recourse to the bureaucratic mechanisms of government.

The philanthropists I can name off hand include: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill & Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros -- All ridiculously wealthy. Do you really have to have buckets of money to directly effect change in society?

Last year on a ski lift with a couple of my best friends, the entrepreneur among us asked: "Now that you're starting to learn about business and entrepreneurship, don't you have an obligation to the world to go create as much wealth as you can? You of all people would put that wealth to the best possible use." Although flattered, I was surprised by the question. I have always been the most idealistic among these friends and not particularly motivated by money so starting by building wealth feels like procrastinating. I'd rather get started now with actually doing good for the world.

An interesting counterpoint nags me. When I was in high school I undermined my grades in rebellion: I refused to do homework. I got by on test scores and class participation, but my grades consistently suffered because I refused to do the work. Hindsight tells me avoiding the work provided an easy excuse for mediocre results. I complained that grades were a lousy measurement, but conveniently dodged a measurement of my best effort. It was a fashionable way to hide from success or failure. Wealth is also a lousy measurement, but have I been undermining my wealth for the same reasons I undermined grades?

I very much want to do something to enable the Long Tail of Philanthropy. Cynicism erodes my remaining hope for effective solutions from government. Philanthropy and volunteerism appeal to me precisely because of the freedom and power they represent. I am free to spend my free time working to make the world a better place exactly as I see fit. I don't have to persuade leaders or even my neighbors. I just do whatever needs doing that's within my immediate reach. Sure it would be swell to have billions of dollars to throw around like Bill and Melinda and Warren and George and Ted. But it would probably be much more broadly influential to encourage a whole bunch of people to spend time in their own communities making their own neighborhoods better, stronger places.

How do I convert that idealistic fire into something which can also feed my family and and cover our medical expenses after retirement? My attention is divided between necessity and philanthropy. For the past year (or maybe two) I have been trying to learn how to build wealth while also giving a substantial bit of my time to the common good. Those two goals haven't exactly been cooperating with each other. But it shouldn't have to be that way.