New Meaning Given, Maybe, To Giving

Gregory Dunn

November 8, 1997

It seems that, in the philanthropic world, the ante has been upped. Ted Turner’s recent pledge to donate up to one hundred million dollars a year for ten years to the beleaguered United Nations has been hailed as a sort of thrown gauntlet to the wealthy. Last week, the CNN founder’s billion dollar challenge was met when George Soros, the Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist, announced that he too would join this trend of super-donations by giving as much as five hundred million dollars to various causes in Russia over the next three years. Mr. Soros was clearly inspired by Mr. Turner’s munificence: According to the New York Times, “Mr. Soros called Mr. Turner’s gift ’wonderful’ and urged other wealthy people to emulate the example.”

Make no mistake: These pledges certainly represent two men’s good desire to make a difference in this world as it moves into the twenty-first century. We should be as challenged by their breadth of vision as we are astonished at the immensity of their gifts. By the same token, the occasion of these gifts should give us pause for thought about the true nature—the foundational principles—that make giving truly good. So with that in mind, let us ask, Are these gifts truly wonderful and worthy of emulation?

As Aristotle teaches us, the right exercise of a virtue means that one uses it in the right manner, at the right time, to the right degree. Thus the truly generous man—or in the case of Mssrs. Soros and Turner, the truly munificent man—will give the right amount at the right time to the right people. In other words, the honor we give one who has been generous is not based simply upon the size of his gift, but on the goodness or nobility of the cause to which it was given.

As the old saw goes, the opposite of good is good intentions. While Mssrs. Turner and Soros may be acting out of the highest and most pious of intentions, the fact of the matter is that it takes as much insight, prudence, and thoughtfulness to effectively give away large sums of money as it does to make them in the first place. Andrew Carnegie, both a shrewd entrepreneur and an insightful philanthropist, understood this when he wrote that the “dispensation of one’s wealth… is a heavy task.” Why? Because all too often the “real object” of the giver “is not attained” and “his real wishes are thwarted… In many cases, the bequests are so used as to become monuments of his folly.”

So in the case of Turner, we must conclude that his munificence is dubious because the case to which he has given is dubious, especially in regard to issues of individual rights and human dignity, as evidenced in the U.N.’s advancement of population control, family planning, and abortion. The issues are less clear in Soros’ case, for he is giving primarily through his foundations to fund health and educational programs in the former Soviet Union. But, again, the key point is that what prevents a gift from becoming a monument to the folly of the giver is that it be given to good and noble causes—a lesson valuable for us all.

Which brings up one final question in regard to the emulation of these two mega-philanthropists: Does the celebration of such large gifts by such important men diminish the smaller, though equally generous, gifts of those of more modest means? What is more astonishing, the fact that Mr. Turner will donate a billion dollars, or that Americans are among the most charitable people on the planet, with a significant portion of the population giving to all manner of causes large and small?

Let me be clear: Many are the schools and colleges, hospitals and hospices, and other beneficial institutions that got their start through the initial and generous donation of a single benefactor. Their absence would have made our society today infinitely poorer. This is not an argument against generosity, or even munificence, it is just a caution that giving be done in such a manner as not to do more harm than good and so erect the monuments to folly that Carnegie warned about. And that means prudence and discernment and an understanding of what is good and noble.

Turner’s gift is certainly a challenge, one that ought to goad us all in to serious reflection on the first principles and faithful practice of generosity.

Gregory Dunn is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.