Massive donors should curb their enthusiasm

By Barry Frankfurt, September 21, 2010

The period of the High Holy Days is often regarded as the time to do three things: repent, pray and give to charity.

The last of these is the one that prompts virtually all of our communal organisations to appeal for support and facilitate our New Year "obligation" to give tzedakah. As UK charities continue to look for new ways to remind us that, as Jews, we have an obligation to give away 10 per cent of our wealth, a recently launched initiative in America has taken philanthropy to a new level.

Warren Buffett, the "Sage of Omaha", a man with an estimated wealth of $37bn, has instigated "The Giving Pledge". He and 40 of his peers have made a commitment to distribute at least half of their fortunes to charity. In Buffett's case, this rises to an astonishing 99 per cent.

There have been very sizeable gifts in the past, but this kind of philanthropic gesture is unparalleled. It is estimated that charities could benefit to the tune of $600bn. At present, no such project has been launched in the UK, but if The Giving Pledge made its way over to our more conservative side of the pond, how would it be received?

Tony Blair's announcement that the proceeds from his memoirs will go to the Royal British Legion has brought the issue into focus. The criticism of the gift itself amounted to nothing more than petty politics but one aspect of Blair's donation can be questioned. Why did he have to tell anyone?

As someone who works with charities in communicating with donors, new and old, I am more than aware of the PR injection a high-profile gift gives to an organisation. And, yes, I understand that peer pressure plays a big part in donating, particularly at the high end of the spectrum (after all, if Gates and Buffett are giving 50per cent, how could Bloomberg possibly refuse…?). But where does that leave the rest of us?

If you have just received any appeals in the post, you will have been able, with even the most cursory glance, to get the very simple message: "We need a lot of money, but even the smallest contribution will make a big difference." Now, imagine that your charity of choice has just been the beneficiary of a very large, and very public gift. All of a sudden your £20 might not seem so vital.

Giving to charity is part of a social contract and that contract is valid for as long as all the parties involved value it. The moment a donor believes that his or her gift is no longer valued is the moment that donor stops giving. And large, public gifts to high-profile charities can all too easily create a feeling among small givers that their donations are superfluous.

There is an art to giving, nowhere more adroitly captured than in an episode of Larry David's Curb your Enthusiasm. On donating a wing at his local hospital, Larry's contribution is completely over-shadowed by the "Anonymous" donor of the wing opposite. More galling is the fact that everyone knows that "Anonymous" is Ted Danson. A fuming Larry remarks: "Next time I give money to anyone it'll be anonymous… and I'm going to tell everybody." It is worth remembering that a private donation benefits everyone. Put it in the public eye and it loses its appeal.

Barry Frankfurt is managing director of a communications agency

Last updated: 11:48am, September 21 2010