Dear Mr. Bezos

Jeff Bezos, Twitter Post

Dear Mr. Bezos:

I read your Twitter post regarding the establishment of a philanthropy strategy with interest.  I believe you established a false dichotomy between a long term strategy and giving immediate assistance to those in need.  I firmly believe you can do both in the same plan, especially given the extent of your resources.  This is particularly true given the depth of need on so many philanthropic fronts – chasms so deep that no single philanthropist, even one with your wealth, could ever fill them singlehandedly.  Indeed, even cohorts of very wealthy donors would fail in the attempt.

I approach your request for feedback as a person who has toiled for years to raise money for various causes in the Seattle area; causes ranging from the arts to children’s needs to access to justice matters.  The latter has had most of my attention because of my chosen profession.  I was a practicing attorney for over 40 years before my retirement, and the shortcomings of the legal system as it relates to low and middle income people became more and more apparent to me the longer I practiced.  It also became increasingly evident that no matter how much I and my fundraising colleagues raised, we could never come close to meeting just the access to justice needs of the residents of King County – much less our community’s other needs or the many needs of other communities elsewhere in the country on any chosen subject.

It is this background that gives me the chutzpah to reply to your tweet as an amateur fundraiser with significant experience in a focused area of need.  This is not a plea for you to focus on access to justice issues, although I have some great ideas for you if you are interested.  Rather it is a plea for you to focus on the community need that seems most important to you given your own experience and passions.  Like most things in life, you will have a much greater impact for good if you keep a tighter focus on your philanthropy; there is so much to be done to make our community a better and safer place to live that it is much more effective to focus your efforts in some way.

And, well, you did ask for it – my opinion, that is.  So here it is.

The false dichotomy I believe you’ve created can best be explained by your reference in your tweet to Mary’s Place.  Mary’s Place is a worthy charity that provides services to homeless families and children.  It is part of a much wider space of charities that focus on the needs of families and children in the Puget Sound area.  Examples of similar charities in the area that come immediately to my mind include Friends of Youth, Center for Children and Youth Justice, the  YWCA, and Cocoon House, among many others.  Some of them focus on providing direct services and some of them focus on programmatic  analysis and improvement of governmental services to the sector.  All are worthy.  By choosing to focus your philanthropy on, for example, family needs, you could donate to any one of them and better the lives of many families and children in the Puget Sound region,  if not elsewhere.

In other words, establish a broad, but not too tight, focus for your philanthropy; this will allow you to be better able to satisfy the concerns and beliefs you will eventually arrive at over an extended period of giving,

Having a focus for you philanthropy is beneficial because:

  1. It better rewards your own passion for service by giving you a bigger bang for each buck spent.  While  diffuse giving efforts are better than not giving at all, focused giving allows you to have a greater effect on whatever topic is  your passion. And since there is such overwhelming need wherever you look, it is far more satisfying to make a dent in something (however small the dent may be) than to see donations simply disappear down endless maws of need without having any noticeable impact on any one of them.  As a donor, you should get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made a difference in people’s lives, and that satisfaction will be greatly enhanced if you stay focused.
  2. Charitable fundraisers will bless you for telling them what you care about.  Wealthy folks in every community are the natural targets of fundraisers.  We spend inordinate amounts of time and effort to find effective ways to approach them in order to convince them of the merits of the causes we cherish.  All of us have participated in endless meetings that ask the question “who among you knows or has a route of access to this particular potential donor?”  We always welcome the knowledge of what someone is interested in, even if it isn’t within our frame of reference.  We only have so much time and effort to spare for our chosen causes.  We have needs to fill and too little time to meet them, so even a declaration that someone is out of our bounds is of good use to us.
  3. You will not be bothered by as many fundraising approaches if your preferences are well-known.  Of course, every fundraiser believes his or her chosen focus is the most worthy of them all due to their own passion, so you will never eliminate all of the asks made of you outside of your chosen focus.  But you can cut down materially on asks in which you have little interest by letting your interests be publicly known.  Fundraisers respect those who limit their philanthropy to matters outside of the fundraiser’s own focus because they are aware that all philanthropy betters their community, even if not their own needs.
  4. You will have a great many programs to choose from within a broad focus such as family needs.  As you become more knowledgeable about who most effectively provides the services you value and what programs work best from your perspective you can tighten your focus further or use your wealth to cause the charities themselves to better their focus.  Don’t be shy about speaking with you pocketbook when it comes to charitable giving.  All charitable needs have some value, but so does your passion for giving.  Make your passion known and the charities within your areas of interest will seek you out and will listen to any concerns you may have about their activities.
  5. You will find that some charities that seem outside of your declared focus may well affect it indirectly and will, therefore, be worthy of your donation.  For example, some access to justice charities affect family needs – the treatment of children in juvenile courts or in foster parenting programs, or the plight of unrepresented heads of families in civil litigation in our court system.  This will allow you the ability to give grants outside of the boundaries of your main focus and still remain credible and true to your last.

In the final analysis, both charitable giving and charitable fundraising are all about empathy – exercising our passions for the benefit of others less fortunate.  No one can argue with another’s passion when it comes to helping whatever communities we are members of, only with their refusal to display any empathy at all.  So let yours be known.  It’s just as much a matter of self-respect as it is of earning the respect of your fellow citizens.

Lastly, if I can interest you in a good access to justice cause, please let me know.  There are many to choose from.  Most of all, thanks for listening (or should I say reading) and thank you for aiding our community.  It needs all the help it can get in each and every way possible.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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