September 17, 2020; Harvard Business Review

Al Cantor, who has been waging a tireless campaign against the lack of regulation for donor-advised funds for lo these many years, has published a piece in the Harvard Business Review that made us stop in our tracks. He remonstrates with nonprofits as they face this recession to stop thinking that the money they’ll need will come anywhere but from the nation’s uber-rich. He tells us to lean on major donors.

Overall, the article is a bit of a cipher, in that Cantor makes a good case for revolution before he lapses into advice for nonprofits about how to approach your local rapacious billionaire, while spreading hope and a sense of optimism.

He also urges us to not look only to our own organizations’ needs, cautioning us, “The very wealthy can grow detached from what is happening across town. Don’t hesitate to remind them of the challenges the community faces.”

Well, exactly, Al. I sadly feel detached from them also, and probably would have to throw myself in front of a vintage Bentley to grab even a moment of their driver’s time.

Some of his other advice is just as otherworldly—for instance, “Remind yourself that those at the top probably have as much or more wealth today than a year ago.” Well, yes, we know. We also got a press release from the Institute for Policy Studies today that called us to this very point. Here’s how that reads:

Half a year into a paralyzing pandemic that has cost millions of Americans their livelihoods and lives, the nation’s 643 billionaires have racked up $845 billion in collective wealth gains, a 29 percent leap since March 18. America’s billionaires reached this startling milestone of wealth accumulation even as special federal relief was drying up for millions of unemployed workers and for hard-pressed state and local governments struggling to provide vital services. Billionaire figures are from Forbes analyzed in a new report by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).

Between March 18—the rough start date of the pandemic shutdown, when most federal and state economic restrictions were in place—and September 15, the total net worth of the nation’s billionaires rose from $2.95 trillion to $3.8 trillion (see table below and this spreadsheet of all billionaires). That works out to gains of $141 billion a month, $32 billion a week, or $4.7 billion a day. Forbes’ annual billionaires report was published March 18, 2020, and the real-time data was collected Sept. 15 from the Forbes website.

Needless to say, ordinary workers did not fare as well.

As Cantor writes, “Welcome to the K-shaped recovery.”

If we could get through to those folks, we should probably have more to say to them than asking for spare change.

In the end, Cantor gets back to his usual message, advocating for our sector’s insistence on a greater payout from donor-advised funds.

  • Explicitly ask your supporters with donor-advised funds and private foundations to distribute more from those funds than they have in the past. These are assets that are under the control of your donors, but the dollars have already been committed to charitable purposes. Suggest to your donors that these funds should not be considered endowed in perpetuity, but rather should be available as resources for a rainy day, and that, for nonprofits in the U.S., that rainy day has arrived. You might even mention the effort known as #HalfMyDAF—popularized recently by David and Jennifer Risher and other philanthropists—which encourages people to spend down at least 50 percent of their donor-advised funds in 2020 to meet the national emergency.

But by the time I got there, we were just so mad at what has been allowed to happen to wealth in this country that I could not for the life of me figure out where to come up with a billionaire to put the screws to.—Ruth McCambridge