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Sitting on stage in the space named in his honor, Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy, discussed the changing nature of philanthropy by the “mega-wealthy” on Feb. 14 at the Sanford School.

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Fleishman wrote his new book — Putting Wealth to Work: Philanthropy for Today or Investing for Tomorrow? — out of “a sense of alarm” about the direction of philanthropy in the United States, he said. Fleishman discussed the topic with Judith Rodin, former head of the Rockefeller Foundation.

“I do believe this is an inflection point in philanthropy,” Fleishman said. Since the 1990s, there has been a shift from the wealthy establishing foundations that are designed to live on in perpetuity to organizations that must “spend down” the donations within a limited period of time. Many donors are focused on having an immediate impact, but the biggest problems are long term, he said.

“You have always defended the value of civil society and traditional institutions. Are the new wealthy threatening that?” asked Rodin.

Many of the innovative organizations in the 20th century were established by veteran foundations, including nearly “all of the environmental and human rights organizations,” Fleishman said. The spend-down organizations are not establishing new organizations in the same way.

Spend-down foundations and the “giving while living” pledge look to solve problems in a short time-frame, rather like the way tech billionaires made their money. The approach is also attractive to donors who worry their money will not be spent in the ways they initially intended.

“We need foundations willing to bet on new ideas” that also have the patience to see if they work, Fleishman said.

“It’s not clear to me that most problems can be solved in one lifetime,” he said. “That’s my concern, that we won’t have the social capital bang we need.”

He pointed to medicine as a field where support is needed over a long time period to allow for research and testing to find cures.

When the idea of the “giving while living pledge” was first introduced, Fleishman was skeptical it would find many willing to sign on. But as of now, there are about 174 signatories. One-fifth of them are from outside the United States and “they are now a club.” They have four sessions a year, of the “rich who want to learn from each other,” he said.

Fleishman did not have a current count of how many foundations are in spend-down mode, but he said that about three-quarters of them have considered it, even if they have not acted upon it.

“Where do you think spend-downs will be 50 years from now?” Rodin asked.

“I think there will be more spend-downs, but also more perpetual foundations, if we care about solving problems. The great strength of traditional foundations is their institutional memory and that they can correct their mistakes,” he said.

Attendees at the event each received a signed copy of Fleishman’s book, supported by a gift from an anonymous donor. The event was sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society.

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