Dr. King, the isolated wealthy, and the future of philanthropy

On this weekend celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was reminded again of the words of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, The Quest for Peace and Justice, given in 1964.

“The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’ “

Since then, the gap between the rich and poor has only widened in the US.

The rich and poor rarely live in the same neighborhoods anymore.   Heck, the well-off don’t even need to mingle with the less fortunate or use public services if they don’t desire, with private schools, private beach clubs and swimming pools, private country clubs, gated communities and isolated vacation enclaves.

So, if you are an affluent individual who never sees the poor or has no need to associate with the less-well-off, and if you are relatively immune from the cutback in government services, how do you come to understand the desperate lives most people live each day?

I worry about the impact of this social isolation on philanthropy.

Yes, as the sheer numbers of the affluent continue to grow, charitable giving grows. But where does the money go? What institutions, serving what classes of people, benefit from this giving?

If we are most influenced by the people we hang out with, and the wealthy don’t know the poor, and the poor don’t have access to the wealthy, will we continue to see great stratification in resources among the nonprofits that serve the less-well-off and those that serve the poor?

At the AFP Massachusetts Chapter conference last November, I listed to a panel of development directors from prestigious private universities and medical institutes share details of their billion dollar growth campaigns. They noted they were aided by close to 200 fundraising staff.

As I listened, I couldn’t help thinking about the homeless outreach program and food pantry I consulted with, that, with just about 3 staff members, none in development , is serving the exploding food needs of individuals and families in my city. In just over a year, they went from serving 250 people a month to over 6,300, half of whom are children.  Their total income? According to their 2010 990 it was $176,848.

Obviously, not all of those with great wealth have turned a blind eye to the poor — the Gates come to mind. But as a profession, we need to be at the leading edge of a sector wide dialogue about how to help the isolated affluent discover and fund the other extraordinary and deserving nonprofit institutions — those that serve another segment of people who also deserve great education, great art, food on the table and a place to call home.

We owe this to our neighbors. And to the legacy of Dr. King.

“In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

4 responses to Dr. King, the isolated wealthy, and the future of philanthropy

  1. Kirsten Bullock, Fundraising Coach

    So well said Gayle! And it is a great sentiment (one that I certainly agree with), but sometimes it is difficult to identify what steps to take – and how we can help break that divide. Do you think development officers with large hospitals and universities should, in their stewardship visits, bring up those with less? What other groups of people float between sectors who could play a role? Or is it up to the staff / board of social service agencies to be more intentional about cultivating relationships with the wealthy? Regardless, thanks for your insight!

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I think boards of directors of the largest and most well off institutions have to start asking themselves a few questions, starting with “how much is enough?”

      I’ve always lamented philanthropic institutions that can so compartmentalize their missions that they feel perfectly justified ignoring the larger community in which they live. For example, how can a university justify a mission about building socially responsible, global citizens (as most seem to claim) but neglect investment property they own and let it decay? Do we really need to fill our hospital beds with ever more expensive elective surgery patients (or fight any effort to reduce unneeded hospital beds in the community)? What should we invest in to lead a wellness revolution in our community?

      I think it’s hard for development staff within institutions to start this conversation. Though development staff certainly can challenge themselves about their choice of where to work.

      Community foundations can play a critical role in connecting the most well off with the least fortunate among us, and many do. One area I would like to see more investment in by community foundations is making a more public case for the affluent to significantly invest in community needs. Every time I see a large donor set up a new scholarship fund with a few million dollars to help one or two students attend a private school, I lament how much our larger community of nonprofits is failing to communicate other uses for that money that would help many more students in need (e.g. endowing quality preschool or after school programs for low-income kids).

  2. Sandy Rees

    I think we can’t expect people to give just because they have money. I think the burden of responsibility is on the nonprofit to identify the right donor prospects, then tell their compelling story so that people want to give.


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