Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Charity Wednesdays - Should We Judge Donors for Their Gifts?

When I was at Indiana University, big news was made when Indianapolis resident Ruth Lilly, the heir to the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical fortune (you can thank that company for Prozac), gave $100 million to an obscure poetry journal in Chicago.  Quite frankly it seemed like a waste.  Why on earth would someone give that much money to poetry when there was so much need elsewhere?  Imagine how many starving children that money could feed and educate, how many trees it could save, or what disease might get closer to being cured - had that fortune not gone to a small magazine promoting an artform nobody really understands.

But were our criticisms fair?  Is it mine, or anybody's, place to judge the inherent value of a charitable gift?  10 years out, it appears, at least on the surface, that something good is being done with Ruth Lilly's gift.  Maybe that is worth $100 million.

The Chornicle of Philanthropy recently published an opinion piece on large charitable donations seemingly wasted on monuments and pandas at a time when the poor in our country face severe hardships and the social service agencies that help them are seeing their funding dry up.

While I see the point - and would surely advocate for all of us doing what we can to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and protect the most vulnerable among us - other causes have value, too.  Research into pandas could not only serve to further protect them, but might shed light on important ecosystems that affect humans.  A visit to a national monument might be the spark in an ordinary person's path to greatness.  Discounting what I spend on my boys' music lessons, I don't really have the money to support the arts.  I'm glad other people do.

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