How To Give Away a Million Dollars
Ideas from Nora Ephron, David Brooks, Jane Smiley, and others.
The Public Theater ... because there's nothing like free Shakespeare on a summer night in Central Park.
James Fallows, national correspondent, the Atlantic
A million dollars is really an awkward number. If you said, "What would you do with a billion dollars?" we could talk about setting up new research institutes or huge change-the-world undertakings. If you said, "What would you do with a thousand dollars?" I could name a specific charity worth getting a little more help. But a million dollars is in the gray zone—too much to feel good about blowing on just any old charity, too little to allow you really to change the world.
I'm tempted to say that I'd use the money to buy as many acres of forest land as possible in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, the Congo, or elsewhere, because in the short run I fear that such ownership is the main way to keep the forests from being cut down. But I realize that on its own, that would probably yield parcels too small to make a difference. So, on reflection, I would probably divide the money between two organizations that have pioneered brilliant ways of matching entrepreneurship with good works of the environmental, medical, poverty-reducing, and democratizing variety, and that have delivered a lot of value per dollar spent. They are Ashoka and Global Giving. Each represents an inventive new model of deciding which projects to support, and each appears to work. I'd probably hold back $100,000 or so and give it to Medecins sans Frontieres.
Michael Kinsley, former editor in chief, Slate
Like Warren Buffett, I would try to give my money to the Gates Foundation, on the assumption that they have the ability to give it away more intelligently than I could. I am very impressed with what I have seen of their management. (Full disclosure: The writer is married to the CEO of the Gates Foundation, Patty Stonesifer.)
Harold Koh, dean, Yale Law School
I work for a law school and my wife is a lawyer for legal aid. I can honestly say that if we had a million dollars to give away, we would give it to those organizations. Preservation and enrichment of the rule of law, and representation of those who lack access to the legal system, should be our highest priorities, particularly when legal-aid funding is under assault and legal rules are short-sightedly bent for the war on terror. We give our lives to these organizations, so why not our money?
Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate and Slate poetry editor
Music, dance, poetry, visual art are at the core of our power to learn.
On the other hand, my Washington years taught me that arts foundations are often wasteful, fad-driven, and full of baloney. I have become a bit skeptical about the usefulness of prizes, commissions, medals, laureateships, conferences, consultants, studies. Sometimes chairs, boards, round tables, panels, and similar furniture do good; sometimes they resemble the chaff that is driven before the wind.
So, my million dollars would go directly to some actual school or library.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.