My family’s wealth came from grain mills my great-grandfather started along the Mississippi in the 1850s. My great grandfather before that and his sons fought at Lexington Green and relatives were involved in abolition, women’s suffrage, and an array of civic causes. Arriving in this country in the 1600s my family has been actively philanthropic; funding many community and arts institutions, causes and political campaigns. But perhaps the most important family legacy is the notion of active citizenship. My father was a socially concerned businessman and Minnesota State Senator, my mother a community leader and active member of a then moderate Republican Party, so these values were not so much taught, as modeled.
I first encountered real social inequity when I transitioned from a boarding school to an urban college, with poverty and social inequities right on my doorstep. This is when I first became aware of the comparative wealth of my family, and began to realize that traditional charity models could not impact the degree of inequality and lack of opportunity that existed in the communities I began to encounter. And how these deep inequalities would compromise the future I wanted for myself and my family to come.
Despite inheriting a million dollars when I was twenty-one, until that point I hadn’t given much thought to philanthropy. Like my parents, I assumed I would contribute to change through my work. Around that time, however, my mother introduced me to Obie Benz, one of the founders of the Vanguard Community Foundation, an early public foundation with a social change agenda and a democratic governance structure. Vanguard’s vision was one that I connected to immediately and the idea of using my inherited wealth to fund and leverage positive social change began to take shape.
Working with some friends in the early 1970’s, we started a new community foundation, the Haymarket People’s Fund. As we developed our plan, we researched other groups that were funding social movements; all of them involved their grantees in decision-making. We adopted that model and established funding committees comprised of local activists. While this model has had enormous benefits, I did eventually come to believe a better funding model might be an equal partnership between the donor investors and community activists.
Together, Haymarket, Vanguard and other sister foundations that sprang up in other parts of the country established the Funding Exchange, a network that has grown to include sixteen social change community foundations. As our understanding of philanthropy grew, we also branched out into social investing and donor conferences to support ourselves and others wanting to join our movement.
The work at Haymarket I enjoyed the most was organizing conferences for donors. Back in the seventies, I worked with David Hunter from the Stern Family Fund and other donors like myself to organize meetings where young inheritors could meet and talk about money. Creating a safe environment to discuss personal issues of inherited/extra wealth helped build a supportive network as we explored how to use money support values and issues we cared deeply about.
From the beginning, Haymarket funded many issues of social concern, from community organizing and healthy neighborhoods to the environment and peace at home and abroad. Over time, as I came to realize that social change funding alone couldn’t solve the problems, I began to look at how issues of inequality were directly impacted by public policies that unfairly favored the interests of the wealthy. With each of these reforms, the wealth gap grows ever wider. Many of us worked hard to counter the influence of money in politics by supporting small donor and public funding of elections, models that continue to work well in states like Maine and Arizona and many cities. Substantial efforts are underway to reverse the decision of five Supreme Court justices that money is free speech and corporations are people. Recent attempts to restrict voting among the young and already-less enfranchised have given rise to a new generation of voting rights organizations determined to get more people to the polls and foster active citizenship in the broadest sense of the word.
Looking back, I am glad I made the choices I did. My advice to young inheritors is go ahead! Give and be bold, but be careful not to let your giving define you. I think that it is important to create a career outside your giving. I am grateful to have had a career working at nonprofits; I am currently the Executive Director of Nonprofit VOTE, an organization that supports nonprofits and service providers as they integrate voter and civic participation into their ongoing programs. My wife also works in an NGO, South Africa Partners, which links South African and US organizations. We have done our best to model the value of active citizenship and giving back. I am proud that both of our children have become teachers and contribute to their communities (although, in truth we would be happy with any career that brought fulfillment and security and kept them close to home!). I still meet with my old friends from the 1970s to talk about money, only now our conversations are more about money in relation to our kids and financial planning.
While it is true that our children will have less access to wealth than I did, they have grown up with more privilege than most of their peers. Unlike me at their age, they don’t have a choice about working for a living, but thankfully they have found meaningful careers. I feel I have passed on the most important family legacy, the tradition of active citizenship.