Shoestring Philanthropists and Charitable Deductions

New Orleans                       Parade magazine is still an insert feature in my hometown paper.  Last Sunday a copy was shoved my way marking a story about a “shoestring philanthropist.”  I like that term.  I’m a huge sucker for these stories, because while billionaires get the features in  big newspapers and magazines, surveys and real analysis regularly reveal that a higher percentage of income is given and more philanthropy is extended from regular citizens and much lower income families helping neighbors, relatives, and strangers with the little they have on a daily basis.  An economist correctly pointed out in a recent piece in the New York Times, that not surprisingly charitable deductions were weighted heavily towards contributions from the rich, rather than benefiting citizens of average income, adding another nail in what I would hope to be the coffin of charitable tax deductions.

So I may like the term “shoestring philanthropist,” but I’m even a bigger fan of the “everyday philanthropist” understanding the value and importance of their contributions to community and cause.  This year I touted a group of friends who came together originally in New York and then elsewhere, including a group of us in New Orleans, to create chapters of the Secret Society of Creative Philanthropy.  In New Orleans we divided up a gift of $1000 (my unexpected royalty check from writing Citizen Wealth which seemed to be destined to seek a way to multiply citizen wealth of course) among a group of organizers, family, and friends to see what people would make happen with $100.  This kind of freelance activity turned out to be harder than you might imagine for many people, because the small sum of money had to be matched by a greater total of work, initiative, and effort to actually make something happen.  It’s not over until it’s over, but people who simply passed the money on during this first year of our chapter, may actually end up multiplying the benefit of the money, more than those that hoped to make the “money work” in a real project.  I don’t think that’s unusual in general, though it is kind of surprising for this highly motivated group.  We’ll see.

The Parade article propped a retired San Francisco teacher named Marc Gold living in a hotel room in Bangkok most of the year on savings and a union pension (not old enough yet for Social Security) who gives away a couple of grand a year of his own and sums raised in coffee klatches with friends and others in the United States.  Another story told of a family on the Virginia coast that gives out about $3000 per year solicited from emails on “philanthropic” travels to Thailand, Panama, and elsewhere.   Some of these small efforts can grow from such seeds to something more serious.  I know of no better example than that of Mary Whelan, the mother of a former ACORN staff member and friend, who started small scale community development projects in Uganda and Kenya from such personal spirit and commitment and constructed a nonprofit (Give Us Wings) that raises more than a $100,000 a year from friends and others in the Twin Cities.

As organizers we scoff at much of this as nothing more than small scale social work applying band aids in a hopeless triage requiring major surgery.  Surely a contribution to ACORN International with a wider scope and impact on tens of thousands creating power and permanent change might arguably be better, but I’m a “lift all boats” guy, too.  The more we start enabling the spirit and commitment of people who give a ten, twenty, or more every month, and connect them to the wider vision of their communities, countries, and the world, the better chance we have that that more will flow to social change and the organizational agents of change, and that a culture of shoestring and grassroots philanthropy will supplant the worship of the rich and the default agenda bias of millionaires, billionaires, and zillionaires often simply siphoning off ill gotten gains.

In this season it seems a good time to celebrate and support the community of small donors and the power of their dollars rather than the big buckaroos and their demands for concessions and press notices.  Let a thousand of these flowers bloom and the harvest be one of plenty.

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Abandoned Communities: Detroit & New Orleans

themotorlesscity.comNew Orleans        There is no question that Detroit has been an economically troubled city for some time now.  Apocryphal, urban legends have grown around this great city of quail and bird counts returning to some areas because they have essentially gone “back to wilderness” due to abandonment and lack of population.  Now news of planning reports done for new Mayor and former NBA player, Dave Bing, argue for withdrawing all city services from some sections of Detroit to concentrate resources and push populations into areas that city planners still believe that they can save.
I’m skeptical of such plans partially because of the lessons learned painfully in the battles around post-Katrina New Orleans, where world class, hot shot planners in league with land and business developers (as always!) tried to argue that entire districts of New Orleans should be allowed to somehow return to cypress swamps and green zones.  We stopped it from happening in New Orleans, partially through the democratic engagement of people who wanted to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods and had the opportunity of an election for district based council and the mayor to force their will and partially because in the United States property rights maybe even stronger than democratic values.
It is very difficult, even for sharpie business men and developers, to make the case that someone does not have the right to live on their own property.  Under “equal protection” constitutional guarantees it is also very difficult to imagine legally how cities like New Orleans then or Detroit now could simply abandon citizens and taxpayers by withdrawing all services to favor other citizens and taxpayers.  Detroit officials already seemed trapped by these realities even as they are trying to imagine something different.  They were at pains to try and argue that they were not going to “shrink” the city, but were committed to maintaining their boundaries at the same 139 square miles.  In fact the only way I can imagine Detroit legally getting around this problem is if they redrew the boundaries of the city, thereby disclaiming responsibility for the very ground itself and the people in it.  If they are not willing to do that, this is all just another exercise in doomsday-politics, and the truth is that Detroit also has a district council system, so politicians on the wrong side of the service ban will also be fighting for their futures as well.  In short in all likelihood this is another planning mirage that is simple DOA – dead on arrival.
Nonetheless the problems are real with declining tax revenues and wholesale abandonment of properties that cost an immense amount to tear down (Buffalo is a good example of a city with a removal program that can’t afford to remove) or rebuild which is the problem in both Detroit with its 50,000 properties needing rehab and New Orleans with our more than 60,000.  Furthermore for all the big talk about the “jack lantern” effect of sustaining citizen households in abandoned communities, there is never a real incentive or financing that has existed to buy the old properties and pay for the move to another area and the house there.  In New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina developers, big shots, and some environmentalists were Cassandras calling for a movement to “higher ground” and the 1850 footprint of the city, but in the wake of the storm higher ground was now phenomenally more expensive and no one ever had a plan on how the moving van would be paid much less the mortgage for the high rises or new homes on the “city on the hill.”
What is the real vision behind the Detroit abandoned communities plans?  It’s not Blade Runner but more dystopian, perhaps a combination of Mad Max with Mel Gibson planted in an urban landscape living behind a 14-foot tall Sarah Palin-Alaska spite fence and Denzel Washington in Training Day.  This would be the new definition of an “urban frontier,” where a homeowner is holding on to their house in the Detroit plan with no police or fire protection, no street lights or garbage pickup or road repairs or for that matter snow removal.
It’s one thing to live in cities where a lot of this is sketchy, but at least we are all pretending that it could get better or that we can make things better.  When a city simply throws in the towel, it’s neither a plan for the present nor hope for the future, but a full scale abandonment of responsibility and duty to citizens.   A city is not a real estate description but a collective community of shared experience and expectations.  Walk away from that and there’s nothing left at all.

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