Slate Deputy Managing Editor Rachael Larimore chatted live on Washingtonpost.com with readers about the Slate 60, our annual ranking of the previous year's top philanthropists. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Rachael Larimore: Greetings, everyone. Thanks for joining me to chat about the Slate 60 and the state of philanthropy during these difficult financial times. I look forward to taking your questions.
New York City: Instead of simply encouraging more philanthropy, how about "responsible" philanthropy? Leona Helmsley left the bulk of her estate to her dog and for the care of "Dogs"? How does that help the human race or make the world we live in a better place?
Rachael Larimore: It would indeed be nice if there was a way to encourage the wealthy to steer their charitable giving to causes that were more "responsible." Indeed, a few years back, Slate published an article with ideas on how to give away $1 million.
Leona Helmsley's gift to her foundation to benefit dogs is not the first time this has come up. In 2002, there was a great deal of outcry because Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to Poetry Magazine.
I think there are a couple factors at play here. First, someone like Leona Helmsley, who had a reputation for being difficult, is not going to much care where people think she should leave her money. And secondly, everyone has a different definition of "responsible." Some people think it's giving to the poor, others think it's important to give to education, yet others think that the arts make the world we live in a better place. You can also see political divides—surely liberals and conservatives have different ideas of what kind of giving is "responsible."
For those who are upset that Helmsley left money for the care of dogs (and her dog, Trouble, received $2 million, not the $12 million originally reported), they can hope tha the foundation breaks with Hemlsley's wishes and finds its own causes.
Washington, D.C.: Amid this recession, what types of nonprofits are going to see the biggest drops in donations for 2009? Could we see some nonprofits simply die out for lack of donations?
Rachael Larimore: Because we do this list annually, and won't see the results of 2009's giving until next year, it's hard to say. One thing we noticed this year in preparing the Slate 60 is that donors seemed to go back to more traditional forms of philanthropy. A huge share of the charitable gifts went to education, health care (to build hospitals and fund research), and the arts. We did not see as much innovation on the list as we usually do--donors who have caught on to trends like "venture philanthropy" and newer ideas like microfinance.
As to whether nonprofits might die out, it's certainly possible. Just yesterday it was reported that Brandeis is shuttering its art museum and selling off its art work because of budget shortfalls. Brandeis is one of the many institutions that has been hurt by the Bernie Madoff scandal, its president said.
Chicago: We are a non-profit organization for an orphaned metabolic disorder called galactosemia. Our group struggles to raise funds for research. The government does not fund research because this disorder is so rare. How do we get charitable contribution to our organization?
Rachael Larimore: I would suggest research, research, research. Here the Internet can be a valuable tool. Many foundations have a Web presence that alerts people to its goals and the kind of charity it emphasizes. If you can find a foundation that focuses not just on health-related giving, but one that cares about little-known diseases, they will be more responsive than foundations that give to cancer research, or general medical causes.
There are signs that the wealthy are taking up where the government leaves off. Two donors on this year's Slate 60, Lorry Lokey and Lawrence Ellison, donated money to stem-cell research because they were concerned about the federal government's limit on funding.
Washington, D.C.: Interesting that so many of last year's donations came as a result of the giver dying. Didn't Bill Gates's big donations come after he realized it's more satisfying to give while you're still alive? (I seem to remember Buffett taught him that.) He seems to recognize that you can't take it with you.