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Thinking about rich folks

On an online philanthropy bulletin board, someone posted this question: "Will nonprofits suffer loss of grants and donations if the national deficit worsens?"

A reader replied: "Don't worry. The divide between the rich and the poor is widening, with the rich getting richer. There will be plenty of individuals and corporations for many more years to come who will want to feel good about being rich and will therefore give magnanimously. We will be kept busy asking and receiving on bended knee. I'm being cynical, of course, because such a divide in society is a deeply tragic situation."

My response:

I find cynicism surprising in someone who (I assume) engages in fundraising for a living. For me, personally, it would be impossible to write the things I write if I believed that I were begging on bended knee of the sort of ogre caricatured above. As Rick Nelson once sang, "I'd rather drive a truck."

For cynics, perhaps some facts will soften your resentment of the hand that feeds you. You can find some interesting ones in this article from The Economist: Doing well and doing good[pdf].

But the best cure for cynicism is probably some honest soul-searching. When I was in college years ago, one of my professors was beset by a faction of cynics in his class who took the same view as quoted above: The rich are hogging all the wealth. The way the professor dealt with them was most ingenious and constructive. He took them seriously.

"Why," he asked one of the more vocal students, "aren't you wealthy?" At first the student took this as an implied put-down. But the professor persisted. "No, I'm serious. If you're not wealthy, there has to be a factual explanation. Tell me why you think you're not wealthy, and I'll write your reasons on the board."

He put the same question to others in this faction. After he had a long list on the board, he invited everyone to challenge reasons that appeared leaky (such as "I'm not rich because I'm not willing to steal and take advantage of people"). He spent the whole class period on this exercise. And in the end, guess what explanations remained standing. They boiled down to essentially two:

  1. I'm not rich because I'm not talented enough (or not smart enough).

  2. I'm not rich because I'm not willing to invest the years of hard work and failure that it would probably take.

That's what it came down to — brains and effort. Even the cynics couldn't support the less savory explanations (stealing, deceit, greed ) except in isolated cases. Whether the lesson stayed with them, I do not know. But during that class, an honest examination of their position led them to take the cynical chip off their shoulder.

To this day, when I write fundraising letters to wealthy individuals and foundations, I remember that lesson. I remind myself that the wealth these people own wasn't laying around on the ground waiting for them to pick it up. It had to be created. How many individuals have the ability to invent a CAT scan, or write a great novel, or build and operate a computer company or a chain of supermarkets, or develop antibiotics, or perform open-heart surgery, or put communication satellites in space? And how many individuals benefit immeasurably from these efforts?

The respective answers are: a very few, and a great many. My professor of years ago was right. Wealth is a product mainly of brains and effort. Only a relative few have great wealth because only a relative few possess the talent and persistence to create it. They act on self-interested motives, to be sure. But take brains and effort out of the equation and see how much wealth you can find.

Is this social divide a deeply tragic situation? Some who thought so tried for 70 years to remove self-interested motives from human action. Their experiment was called the Soviet Union. Its result was nearly universal privation.

Against this background, fundraisers have a choice of attitudes: In general, the wealthy have earned our resentment, or they have earned our respect. Which attitude you adopt depends on which story you tell yourself about the source of wealth.

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