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A volunteer working at the 150 year celebration at the Jupiter Light House

This month brings with it a grace note from harried schedules. We celebrate with our friends and families and reflect as a nation on the bountifulness of a remembered thanksgiving. The tradition invokes an American pictograph, embroidered with the likes of pilgrims and Native Americans, feasting on roasted squash, boiled corn, and, of course, the prerequisite slices of roasted wild turkey, the turkey tough as an old shoe, and antecedent to the Butterball, which a colonial farmer might have regarded as a bird from another planet.

Were our pioneer remembrance in old Florida, the settlers’ repast might have been served up under a great live oak on a makeshift table groaning under the weight of a skillet full of squirrels and gravy, ambrosia made from sweet oranges, winter collards spiked with smoked ham, great squares of crusty corn bread and, yes, the obligatory roasted wild turkey, which was surely just as tough as its northern kinfolk. This rustic menu in scrub country was likely punctuated by a cloud of mosquitoes and an onslaught of no-see-ums. Nonetheless, whatever the shortcomings of those early gatherings, they were seldom sufficient to derail the spirit of the day. Those who gathered were often mindful they were fortunate to be feasting at all.

Nowadays, the menu for Thanksgiving reflects the rich cultural diversity of our communities, the theme of thankfulness sufficient to raise our hearts and spirits in gratitude for the measure of abundance we can count within our own lives. But for thousands of families, this is going to be a tougher year than most years to be counting blessings.

Just ask the volunteers serving in any one of the many churches or nonprofit organizations mobilized to combat hunger amidst a rising tide of area families in need of emergency assistance. This volunteerism is what Rotary describes as “service above self”, and is manifested in the work of hundreds of nonprofit organizations and volunteers from throughout our region.

Volunteerism and charitable giving is a critical measure of our community’s social capital. We actually have a tool to assess the relative strength of volunteerism and philanthropy and its contributions toward building social capital in our communities. It is called the “generosity index” by those who study such things. You might be surprised to learn Mississippi ranks high in generosity on the “generosity index”, despite the public’s perception the state otherwise ranks consistently low on just about every measure of social and economic progress known to man. In fact, Mississippi has the highest rate of per capita charitable giving in the United States. Who knew? It turns out folk of poor or modest means generally give a larger proportion of their individual income; and, as individuals, give far more frequently, at least in Mississippi. It’s a community tithe collective made and expressive of religious faith and the practice of charity creating, quite literally, a commonwealth. Mississippi’s stand out accomplishment on the “generosity index” also suggests philanthropy is a province whose citizenship only requires you give based on the unique measure of your own abundance. So if philanthropy were about writing a check that your heart can cash, how would you measure up on the “generosity index”?

There is no better time to be asking the question: nonprofit organizations are reporting record numbers of homeless individuals and families and children are being carried along with the tow. Nearly 1700 children in Palm Beach County School District are reported as being homeless and those are the ones we know about it.

The Community Foundation has given priority to leading and supporting efforts that address issues of food security and homelessness. Such issues are seriously on the rise. A charity at the center of this maelstrom recently told us that in the last three months, 400 families have sought help from the agency for emergency assistance for food and shelter. Last year, it was 40 families. So as you sit down with family and friends to celebrate all you have to be thankful for, remember the silent, invisible guests at your table and all those empty plates. Your contributions to the charitable organizations seeking to meet these needs deserve your support.

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Philanthropy is an important source of funding for local communities throughout the state of Florida. Individuals, foundations and corporate grantmakers gave away $17.7 billion in charitable contributions in 2007, a headline of magnitude missed by most popular sources of our community news.  That dollar figure is from a report issued annually by the Florida Philanthropy Network, a statewide association of grantmakers working to strengthen philanthropy through research, education and public policy.

There is, of course, a world of difference between where the economy was in 2007 when those numbers were reported and what has happened since.  Unemployment, the decline in the S&P, and drop in personal income eroded philanthropic assets and levels of giving in real dollars. Nonetheless, with over 4,000 active foundations and corporate givers in the state, this infrastructure is of sufficient magnitude to guarantee its recovery and continued growth. As the economy improves, you can wager that the numbers are being watched very closely for the stories they will tell about the strength and status of charitable giving. Grantmakers and nonprofits are not the only ones interested in and surveying those trends.

A recent letter from Steve Gunderson, head of the national Council on Foundations, is a case in point: Gunderson considered the question of what’s ahead for philanthropy in 2011. He takes it one step further, though, adding “when our governments are both broke and broken?”  There is a very long and rocky road between where that question begins and where it ends, qualified as it is, with an observation on the state of public entities. In the climate of today’s politics and given the downsizing of government, philanthropy looks inviting as a literal pot of gold from which to alternatively replace public funding and to pass on with sleight of hand problems once considered to be commonwealth’s domain.  If you want to get a foundation person excited, you may want to casually suggest that grantmaking budgets be appropriated to provide, say, subsidized childcare for poor and low income families for the city or county. Be prepared for a hot breeze.

So what’s the answer?  Gunderson replies (and I would echo) the role of philanthropy is NOT (emphasis added) to be “a kind of government light”.  But the response begs the question: if it isn’t that, then what is the role? It is reassuring Gunderson’s conclusion mirrored my own: philanthropy’s role is to provide leadership on behalf of charitable investments that improve society and promote positive change (though admittedly, that is a tall order in a short sentence).  Yet it is clear that foundations are well positioned to offer leadership. The needs are great, opportunities are many, and the magnitude of the mismatch between the two is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon.

With government occupied in the process of its own economic decline, society is already well advanced with its leap into the unknown, without certainty of there being a handhold on how communities are going to manage in starkly new circumstances. This is not just about learning to live with “there is and will be less”.  It is escalating into a fearful what, if anything, will be left?  The safety net is no longer the province of just the poor. A vast immigration has begun from among the newly poor, the middle class and others who never thought they would have to ask for help.

Some foundations have always made it their business to be on the cutting edge of tough social issues, often with controversy and under fire.  But the breadth of social and economic problems facing our communities has called out the shy and tentative, to take a place on a stage and in a role perhaps not of their own choosing.  Not all will rise to accept or seek the mandate.  But in these circumstances, Foundations have flexibility to consider new priorities, try new approaches, be entrepreneurial in problem-solving, and engage new partners in their work.  Add to this, the capacity to convene, to be a catalyst for new ideas, and give a voice to what, where and why their community investments are being made, and leadership is well within their practice of the art of the possible.

We are fortunate in Florida to have a philanthropic infrastructure with depth and breadth. It alone cannot cure the wide spread pain unleashed by the unprecedented forces reshaping our political economy. But we can be, oh so grateful, it is there.

 

The terrible news out of Arizona struck a deep and festering nerve on the issue of civil discourse in this country. It took little time following the violence before it was branded as a consequence of the poisonous rhetoric espoused by political extremists, their metaphorical call to arms against the government having reached a fever pitch. Ironically, the relevance and association of this murderous act to that very issue was challenged almost immediately, the dismissal of the association as inaccurate nonetheless overshadowed by the presumption’s leap to ascendancy in the American consciousness, our shared intuition rising to the fore, that no good can come from vitriol that is unbridled, intemperate, and laced with the language of hate.

If it is proven true that no direct connection is made of the act to the populism de jure only confirms, at least in my mind, that which my father wisely counseled:  you can be right and still be wrong. If this was not an event directly the result of extremist populism, we nonetheless as a nation were expecting there to be one. There is, however, no redemption in an admonition by anyone in “I told you so.”

We as a nation have felt a catharsis of loss, though none as profound as the shooter’s victims and their families. The bond of federal citizenship we share as Americans is dangerously frayed, our commitment to a national vision of democracy eroded by the willingness to burn bridges across differences. We have been here before.

This week we celebrated and observed with acts of service the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was an eloquent leader during the civil rights movement, and successfully led protests against racial discrimination and transformed the country. Nonviolent protest was the open palm he held up to confront and overcome the fist of injustice, hate and violence the movement encountered all along the way. Nonviolence was the spirit of his call to the better angels within all Americans to end racial segregation and rally a nation to the higher cause of justice and equity for all.

Deeply-felt hate and opposition, once goaded into life, went on to reap the whirlwind. Senseless acts of murder followed, including the killing of Dr. King. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham took the lives of four young girls; murders famously proliferated, such as that of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two young Jewish students from New York,  Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. Their deaths and the deaths of many others underscored the risks in taking a stand in the face of a ruling mob mentality. So deep were the racial divides, not even little girls and young people were safe from the spawn the opposing hatred inspired.  The events in Arizona serve as a terrible reminder of the danger intolerance inspires, even if we can’t literally connect the dots between cause and effect.

Philanthropy has often been a divining rod in such times. A merciless light is shed on the contradictions in our behavior and attitudes when an event prompts their measurement against the yardstick of our aspirations as a democracy. Philanthropy is often there at the epicenter. It has itself become an agent of change, serving as a “third eye”, seeing the potential of what we can together achieve in the pursuit of solutions to the important questions of the day.

Foundations invest in charities that occupy in society a space and voice for alternative points of view and experience. We are challenged to study issues more thoroughly, reflect more deeply, debate more vigorously, and share abundance more broadly.  Is  it acceptable, philanthropy asks,  that the world’s richest nation’s cannot conquer hunger, assure access to healthcare, provide equity in  education, protect our environment, end homelessness, or guarantee, as a human right, a safety net for those in crisis?

Dr. King taught that the passion that ignites our resolve and fosters commitment to a cause is hopelessly flawed if absent our valuing of difference and diversity.  His and others accomplishments in the struggle for civil rights are a testament to the greatness a nation can achieve when its values and vision for freedom and justice are tested and prevail. The pledge of allegiance every school child recites is to this vision of our nationhood.  We need not settle as citizens for anything less nor allow violence and hate to diminish its promise.

Two weeks ago, there was an opportunity to take a last glance through the rear-view mirror and see the milestones receding of significance during the past year. This exercise played itself out in popular media in the context of multiple themes. On New Year’s Eve, Charlie Rose did a video retrospective, rolling clips from prior interviews with guests that passed away in 2010, among them Joan Sutherland, Elizabeth Edwards, Ted Sorenson, and Robert Byrd. It was a poignant hour, to be reminded of the significance of those losses, no matter the plane of their relevance, to art, to politics, to human discovery in this most recent of times. Other explorations were less somber, from assessing the 110 things that New Yorkers were talking about in 2010, to the top ten films, news stories, fashion flops, and so on. It was fun, entertaining and thought provoking and does put one in the frame of mind to accept a clean slate ahead and be confident we will have mastery over shaping the story we want to be able to tell this time next year.

In philanthropy, the big stories in 2010 found us still aghast at the tragedy, now grown to biblical proportions, that have Madoff at its core; the surprisingly bold and audacious Giving Pledge campaign launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, encouraging the world’s billionaires to pledge half of the wealth to philanthropy; and the unexpected tax windfall that means almost no one will be subject in 2011 to the estate tax (an estimate from the American Bar Association suggests the number is less than one-half of one percent); and with the punch line, that even those few who will pay taxes, the increase in the gift tax exemptions will allow them to pass on tens of millions of dollars tax free.

There will be plenty of time in the coming year to continue to assess the impact of these watershed moments: will we continue to see a downstream effect of Madoff that disappears, still further, philanthropic donors and institutions? Will the long term impact of the Giving Pledge leverage upward, the philanthropy of the super rich, to achieve a scale more proportionate to capacity as in the day of a Carnegie or Rockefeller? Will the time-limited “free pass” inherent in the estate tax protecting the heirs of the country’s wealthiest of families prove to be a disincentive among the high net worth to sustain a commitment to and practice of philanthropy?

The trade journals and blogs that traffic in news of philanthropy are looking down the road ahead, too and making their own predictions. Among the trends forecast is a continued expansion of a broad interest among new and emerging donors in investing in social good, using break-through technologies and promoting innovations that challenge conventional wisdom and the ways of means of how philanthropy is best thought achieved.

Social media have exploded the opportunities to spread ideas, attract constituents who “like” or self identify as “friends” to each other, on the basis of similar values, and that together crowd source the funding to achieve milestones proportionate to a human scale of need, one person at a time, multiplied over and over again. Technology and its application to philanthropic purposes are expected to disrupt and transform philanthropy in the coming years. Some speculate that too much of a good thing can also lead to deadening enthusiasm for giving, leaving the well-intended to decipher too much information and too many options, and thus not likely to give at all.

There are other signs that philanthropy and the charitable sector will continue to restructure in the future year, as both a necessity of the economic recession and in recognition that changes in public policy have vast implications for the organizational infrastructure upon which charities now rest. Old assumptions about tax exemptions, the sanctity of anonymity, the breadth of required disclosures, are just a few of the areas where old assumptions are likely to die and new ones take their place.

My prediction for 2011: In a time of challenge, expect the face and character of philanthropy to change. In a time of scarcity, anticipate philanthropy’s ascendance as a powerful tool of community and social investment. In a time of need, expect abundance to be created out of opportunity. In a time of uncertainty, count upon opportunities to be plentiful. That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

Here we are then, in 2011. Most all of us are trying to adjust to the new economic reality. U.S. foundations are not immune from this exercise. The cautious pronouncements regarding the state of the nation’s economy have grown more optimistic these past weeks. It was buoyed on the wave of an up-tick in holiday shopping that signaled growing consumer confidence. This modest boost in economic activity is indeed welcome news, though it is clear that South Florida is far from home and a long way to go in its journey toward economic recovery.

Though the “Great Recession” was declared by economists to have officially ended last year, it still feels as though we got up as a nation from a holiday table having indulged in every matter of rich and delicious fare; and now, with our guests departed, we return to our kitchens to face the vast pile of dirty dishes, pots, and pans, the countertops overflowing with leftovers, all of which signal an unrestrained, over-the-top, celebration. Taken as a metaphor for our economic recovery, the gilded goose has been followed by an aftermath of millions of families doing kitchen clean-up duty, as they struggle to set their houses right and return to some state of normalcy. Their pampered guests, meanwhile, have gone on to the next party, oblivious to the scene of chaos left behind. A little shopping for the kitchen-weary goes a long way in such circumstances.

These past months, my foundation colleagues have shared stories of how they, too, are coping with change, and assessing the impact of a weak economy. A recent report issued by the national Foundation Center tells the story in broader strokes. The sum of their introspection is that the recession has significant consequences for foundation operations. Expect grantmaking programs to be re-engineered.

The report confirms, not surprisingly, some grantmakers expect the downturn to have a lasting impact, unable to bounce back from the erosion suffered as a result of the markets having gone awry and being caught with too much of a bad thing. Those stories resonate here at home. For others, the decline in assets is sufficient reason for some private foundations to take the step to give greater focus to grantmaking, closing their doors and alternatively roll assets over into a donor advised fund. The effect of the transition is to minimize administrative expenses and increase grants dollars dedicated to grantmaking. In such circumstances, the Community Foundation serves as an intermediary making the conversion for private foundations to a donor advised fund easily accomplished. Thus donor advised funds enable private foundation philanthropy to flourish still but within a charitable infrastructure that eliminates the overhead required to sustain a “retail” office.

In addition to its general assessment, the report also ventures a forecast for trends in foundation giving for 2011. It states slightly more than half of all survey respondents indicate their grantmaking will remain flat, with about 25% of respondents expecting a modest increase in giving for the coming year. Corporate giving is expected to rise, assuming businesses continue to sustain and grow in profitability. A smaller percentage of the foundations participating in the survey are less optimistic and expect their grantmaking to be lower than in years past.

Overall, the forecast for future giving is somewhat anemic but the report underscores signs of new life emerging among foundations after an economic winter. Organized philanthropy is strongly intact but you should expect significant adaptations in their approach to and practice of philanthropy. You are likely to be hearing much more about strategic grantmaking and witness the narrowing of priorities for which funding is available, not unforeseen news to those already experienced in grantseeking. There are also among Foundations significant rounds of belt-tightening going on to shed administrative pounds perhaps more readily acquired and more easily borne in more prosperous times.

A New Year’s is traditionally the time for resolutions. I know full well that most are seldom tethered sufficiently to the resolve necessary to materialize their success. But I remain optimistic. We all have the capacity within our reach to connect our caring with an act of giving. My resolution is to do a little more of that and, hopefully, see it paid forward many times over for a Happy New Year for all.

 

Anyone observing the legislative debates of the lame duck session of the 111th Congress must have wondered what good can come from this.  Nonetheless, many of us in the charitable sector were watching closely the outcomes of the debate on tax policy, especially with regard to the estate tax and other legislated provisions in the tax laws that would “sunset” at year end.  The estate tax had previously been allowed to expire and its renewal to languish, leaving estate planners to scratch their heads and caustically wonder, is it better to plan for one’s demise in 2010 or in 2011?


Grassy Waters Preserve, December Day
Much hinged for heirs and tax collectors alike on the outcome of the estate tax renewal and the ultimate form it took.  Congress removed these and other unpleasant ambiguities, for better or for worse, at least temporarily, for the next couple of years. At midnight last Thursday, approval was given to a tax bill that included $801 billion package of tax cuts, including renewal of a new version of the estate tax. The bill also provided $57 billion in extended unemployment insurance for the jobless. The bill had previously passed muster with the Senate after extensive debate.

Since I am neither a lawyer, nor an accountant, I’ll refrain from commenting on the details of the probable benefits to individuals. There are many trusted professional advisors who can provide expert counsel and who are practiced in the discernment of how such sweeping changes are likely to affect the economics of family and business.

However, of several key provisions affecting individual taxpayers, there is one especially worthy of note for the philanthropically-minded that makes for tax-smart philanthropy. It is the extension of two years (through 2011) of tax-free distributions from individual retirement plans (IRA) for charitable purposes, in an amount of up to $100,000 per taxpayer, per taxable year. The bill allows individuals to make charitable transfers during January of 2011 and treat them as if made during 2010. This allowance of time makes the last call in 2010 for charitable giving wonderfully inviting. Individuals have both flexibility and the additional time to make a thoughtful decision and appropriately accomplish the task.
So what is an IRA charitable rollover?  The term “qualified charitable distribution” is used in the provision to describe an IRA charitable rollover. A qualified charitable distribution is money that individuals who are 70½ or older may direct from their traditional IRA account to eligible charitable organizations. Individuals may exclude the amount distributed directly to an eligible charity from their gross income.

This provision is still time-limited, however. It will apply only to qualified distributions made before January 1, 2012. The extended timeline can thus be of particular benefit to donors who would like to take advantage of the rollover in both 2010 and 2011. Or, alternatively, if you just want to do this for the current tax year, you still have time but you need to complete the transaction by January 31, 2011.

With the clock fast running out on 2010 tax year, Congress understood that the extension of the IRA charitable rollover provision would not be practicable unless some extra allowance of time were made to accommodate the steps necessary to qualify for the rollover benefit in the current tax year.

The majority of contributions to public charities — other than supporting organizations—are considered by IRS as qualified charitable contributions. This is an area where a little homework will serve you well to insure the gifts to charities appropriately qualify. However, the really good news is that distributions to almost all types of funds typically held by the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties — such as scholarship, field-of-interest, and designated funds — qualify.

The exception to this general statement is donor advised funds since, under the special IRA roll over rules, distributions to donor advised funds do not count as qualified distributions from IRAs. Other fine print also applies to donor advised funds. So it is always wise to proceed with caution and seek professional guidance on how the roll-over opportunity fits with your unique circumstances.  As your Community Foundation, we are here to serve as your partner, promote philanthropy and invest in our communities. When you consider your opportunities for charitable giving, just know tax-smart philanthropy is a companion benefit to doing well by doing good.

Simple Gifts

Like many of you, it is with gratitude and some relief to find out that all the packages are wrapped and the stockings are hung by the chimney with care. I have spent recent weeks poring over food magazines and exploring the palate of various holiday cultural traditions, imagining that this year I will do something completely different. This desire to do something surprising is a bracing tonic against the fierce wind blowing otherwise so forcefully in the direction of traditional and familiar.  Holidays come with so many expectations that inevitably, they all cannot be met. Still, there is something to be said for hanging on to the tried and true rites of the holiday season. Among the most precious, is the time to step away from ordinary pursuits and recapture and savor for a brief moment, the sheer joy of being.  This spiritual oasis is immortalized in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, as “Simple Gifts”, a one verse song written by a Shaker in 1848, with lyrics that call forth this sacred space:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Tindall Pioneer Homestead, Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum

Fast forward 150 years and the gift to be simple is much harder to achieve. The Shakers sought unsuccessfully to establish a religious community that created separation from this other worldliness. Today, modern society has vastly escalated the erosion of simplicity by making complexity accessible on a global scale. Is it any wonder we get lost in the thicket between elaborate and simplicity, given such a contradiction?

Well, this is an old saw, I know; and doubtless, while life does seem to have been truly simple long ago, at least from a 21st century perspective, it really wasn’t, even for the Shakers who sacrificed much to find and organize themselves around an economy of life as its own spiritual reward.  Today, we can admire the physical space this approach created and the beautiful form that functionality achieved in the care and craft of their capable hands. But the Shakers are themselves long gone, which speaks to the challenges of sustaining quiet, surrounded by the continuously growing decibel of modernity.

That is why, perhaps now, more than ever before, keeping things simple becomes more and more of a challenge in our daily lives, and especially now, at this time of year, when the focus is on “Gift” with a capital “G”, rather than on simplicity itself as perhaps the more prudent path. If you are like me, you will be playing at both ends of the field and hope to end up at the satisfying moment when you feel in your heart you have managed to do well in finding the quiet space in the holidays between simplicity and the elaborately generous. You know the moment because it settles like a gentle snow over our familial landscape as the gift of giving. This experience of giving is thus transformed when it occurs on a plane of simplicity. Many years later, perhaps inspired by the changing context of the times, new verses were added to the original Shaker lyrics to “Simple Gifts”:

‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say,
‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.”

At this time, in this place, with our friends and loved ones both near and far, and with the precious memory of those known only to our hearts, the simple gifts are the ones we most long to give and receive.  The Shakers were on to something. Happy Holidays to you all!