Philanthropic Aggrandizement and Barron’s Top 25

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I am in New Jersey today and it is raining torrents out there. I am getting ready to speak in front of 150 or so nonprofit leaders and, as usual, am obsessing about what I can say that will be useful — hoping I won’t inadvertently use “a bad word” as my grandson calls it — and thinking about my own grandmother who brought up her five children in Salem, New Jersey. She was an army bride from England who had to dump her husband and go it alone. She worked in the Heinz factory and kept a small farm so her kids would not be without fresh food in the great depression. She drove herself and them hard to make sure that they would survive and thrive and then in her late fifties came to live with her daughter, my mother.

My grandmother, who lived to her mid-nineties, abhorred people who put on airs and herself used some choice descriptives to describe my father to himself when he got too full of himself — not an uncommon occurance. Luckily he listened to her. She had gravitas mixed with a dry wit that he could not ignore. From her, with whom I shared a bedroom, I got the sense that I had to work hard, listen hard to the experiences of people around me, and take myself with a grain of salt.

That is why I worry about the tendency in some nonprofit and philanthropic circles to build habits of self aggrandizement and mutual congratulation. This is particularly disturbing in philanthropy where deep humility should be the price of admission — most especially when you did not make the money being given away.

My friend Cindy Gibson, who has written some great articles about how to keep “citizens” at the center of the nonprofit and philanthropic equation recently volunteered to write a piece called “America’s Next Top Philanthropist” challenging Barron’s choices for the 25 greatest in that field. We gladly agreed and posted it yesterday on our new and constantly improving Web site. It is well worth the read.

And we’d really love to hear from you what you think constitutes “good” philanthropy, particularly in these times because there seem to be two very distinct camps emerging in more stark relief right now. Keep an eye on our pages for more.