It’s Shameful to Shame a Major Donor

Would you publicly shame a generous philanthropist who just contributed $100 million?

Dylan Matthews, a writer at the blog site Vox, has done just that in his recent post: “David Geffen’s $100 Million Gift to UCLA is Philanthropy at Its Absolute Worst.”

David Geffen

David Geffen

The post came after David Geffen, the billionaire entertainment mogul and philanthropist, announced that he is donating $100 million to the University of California, Los Angeles, to build a private school aimed, in part, at serving the families of UCLA’s faculty and staff, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

Geffen and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block described the new school, in part, as a recruiting and retention tool for faculty and scientists who may be worried about the cost of living in Los Angeles and the quality of the Los Angeles education system, the Times reports.

The gift to create the Geffen Academy was not the philanthropist’s first donation to UCLA. He has already contributed $300 million to what is now UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Through his gifts to UCLA, Geffen told the Times, he wants to help the medical school “to be competitive with Harvard and Johns Hopkins and the very best in the world.”

While many might think Geffen’s generosity is noble, Matthews clearly feels otherwise:

Music mogul David Geffen is very, very bad at being a philanthropist. His past donations have mostly taken the form of massive gifts to prominent universities and cultural institutions, rather than to poor people or important research or even less famous, more financially desperate universities and arts centers.”

In short, the Vox blogger says that Geffen is a “ very, very bad” philanthropist because he does not give to causes that Matthews believes he should support. This is a perfect illustration of holier-than-thou liberalism (not to be confused with liberalism).

Matthews calls Geffen’s philanthropy a “grotesque waste.” He adds, “This gift is actually worse than no charity.” He disparages Geffen’s desire to have UCLA compete successfully with Harvard and Johns Hopkins. He even insults the students who will be attending the Geffen Academy by dismissing them as “faculty brats.”

Interestingly, I discovered one reason why Matthews might really be opposed to the Geffen gift. Geffen wants UCLA to be able to compete more effectively with Harvard. Well, guess what? Matthews is a Harvard alumnus, something he neglected to point out in his blog post. That conflict of interest aside, I also noticed that most of the charities that Matthews thinks would be worthier of Geffen’s support work in the developing world. Could it be that Matthews believes in white paternalism and/or keeping people of color dependent on white, Western charity? Is Matthews of the belief that there are no needy children in the US or is it that he’s simply anti-American?

So, Mr. Matthews, how do you like having your motives judged and your character impugned? Normally, I wouldn’t have done so, but I decided to take a moment to adopt your writing voice. I also thought it might be interesting for someone to hold a mirror up to you.

I won’t go into why the Geffen donations are beneficial. Suffice to say they will do a great deal of good from creating good paying jobs to enhancing medical education and research. It might not be what you or I would support. It’s certainly not what Matthews would support. But, the fact is, it’s not our money. It’s Geffen’s wallet, and he can empty it however he wishes, or not at all. If Matthews wants $100 million to go to the various causes he listed, let him go out and earn it so he can give away his own money where he sees fit.

By the way, Geffen’s philanthropy is fairly diverse. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it after reading Matthews post. For example, in addition to donating to UCLA and the arts, Geffen has contributed significantly to AIDS research, something Matthews could have pointed out for balance. Instead, Matthews chose to write a hatchet piece that supported his own hidden agenda.

Shaming Geffen for his philanthropic choices is simply shameful. Geffen plans to donate his entire $7 billion fortune to nonprofit organizations. I applaud him for his generous philanthropic spirit. We need more philanthropists like Geffen. Suggesting that wealthy people should not donate at all unless their giving conforms to our philanthropic objectives rather than theirs is supremely arrogant and even dangerous.

When trying to learn more about Matthews, in order to better understand his point of view, I checked out his Twitter feed. I noticed his Twitter description, which reads in part:

I know, I know, I don’t like me either.”

This reminded me of a line in the song “Playas Gon’ Play” by the group 3LW in 2001:

Haters gonna hate.”

Since Matthews doesn’t even like himself, I’m not surprised he doesn’t like Geffen.

In contrast to Matthews, I’m a champion of philanthropy. And I have some suggestions.

Let’s refrain from questioning the motives of philanthropists. Let’s avoid disparaging their choices simply because they don’t conform to our own. Let’s never publicly shame philanthropists or would-be philanthropists.

Rather than shaming philanthropists, let’s inspire them to give to worthy causes by preparing meaningful cases for support. Let’s match the needs of our organizations with the philanthropic aspirations of our donors. Let’s celebrate philanthropy. Let’s recognize the good that philanthropists allow charities to do. Let’s be positive instead negative. Let’s encourage rather than discourage others. Let’s remember that good manners should never go out of fashion.

Let’s not be haters. After all, the word philanthropy means love of humankind.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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9 Responses to “It’s Shameful to Shame a Major Donor”

  1. Michael – As always, a thoughtful and well written piece. Thank you! I always say, the job of a development director is to be a match maker of sorts, between their cause/organization, and the passions of individual donors. Most donors do not feel passionate about all causes. It’s our job to find the people who are committed to the causes we support and help them make a difference in the way they see fit. It takes all kinds of people to support all kinds of causes. Thanks for reminding us of this.

  2. Completely agree with you, Michael, and amazing close to a well written article. If you give time, talent or dollars to the causes that engage you, nobody should pass judgement. One person cannot solve all the world’s problems, but if we teach the whole world how to be more giving we can aspire to that dream.

    • Christina, thank you for your kind comment. Philanthropy is indeed a learned behavior. As you’ve pointed out, we need to teach people to be philanthropic. Whether one agrees with David Geffen’s philanthropic choices or not, he’s certainly setting an extraordinary example as he sets out to donate his entire $7 billion fortune to charities. Hopefully, it will teach and inspire others to be generous as well.

  3. Michael, it amazes me how many people out there feel the need to judge and disparage donors because they don’t support the causes that the complainers support. I have written about this issue several times, myself. Why can’t people like Matthews understand that it is the donors’ money and their choice of causes where to invest it. It is donor empowerment. They should be praised for giving, even if it is not to a cause we might support. At least they are giving.

    • Richard, thank you for your comment. I knew this post would resonate with you. I’ve been around long enough to remember when editorials were written lambasting Bill Gates for not being particularly charitable. At the time, he did not donate all that much to charities. However, that did NOT mean he was not philanthropic. Gates told detractors that he was in the earning phase of his life and that, later, he would enter the philanthropic phase. Today, I don’t think anyone would dare suggest that Gates is anything other than philanthropic. It’s a shame he was subjected to public shaming when he always had philanthropic intent. For Gates, it was a timing issue. Bullying people for what they give, where they give, and/or when they give is unacceptable.

  4. I think it is interesting that the blogger chose to shame the donor, and not make any mention at all about the role UCLA plays in the agreement. Gifts of this size and type usually take a significant amount of time and energy and negotiation to realise, and the development staff play a huge role in negotiating acceptable terms for both the University AND the donor. It is very one-sided to judge the donor, without reflecting on what UCLA is seeking to gain from their involvement in this gift, too.

    • Anthea, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Dylan Matthews seems to believe that David Geffen’s donation does nothing but benefit Geffen’s own ego while providing an education to “faculty brats.” He doesn’t consider the broader impact of the gift nor the ripple effect it can have. Matthews certainly does not provide an unbiased exploration of what UCLA hopes to gain from the gift. Clearly, Matthews wrote his post with a particular viewpoint in mind. While it is most certainly his right to express his opinions, one would hope he would do so more responsibly.

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