In the recent midterm election, voters made choices that reflected their opinions – among other things – on how our country should allocate its resources and who should help make those decisions.
But one thing voters do not weigh in on is how to spend philanthropic dollars, which can sometimes have a greater impact than government spending. Our large and small foundations have a great responsibility to society to use their hard-earned, tax-deducted money to make a real difference in people’s lives. And the fact that they can do so without the short-term pressures of winning votes gives them great opportunity – and responsibility.
Today, nearly $900 billion sits in U.S.-based foundations. That’s a staggering amount of money. To put that in context, it’s more than four times the annual budget of California, the world’s fifth largest economy. Those already tax-deducted dollars should be doing more.
That’s why I believe that our nation’s philanthropists and their foundations can do more by focusing on those hard decisions that may not be immediately popular, particularly among politically influential parties. For example, our Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (a noncharter organization) has legitimately improved the lives of students at some of the most underserved schools in Los Angeles but has done so by being able to disagree with powerful groups and not have to worry about backlash at the ballot box.
As philanthropists, we have the opportunity to go where politicians will not because we do not have to worry about getting re-elected. Solving hard problems often means doing what’s not politically easy.
Philanthropists are comfortable taking risks in business, which is why they are in the position to give away substantial amounts of money. But too often, they are overly conservative in their philanthropic giving, toe-dipping into projects and moving on to the next issue if early results do not show enough progress.
It is important for philanthropists to be willing to take the same big swings in donating their money as they have in earning it. Too many foundations just give the federally mandated minimum of 5 percent of their funds every year. That makes it nearly impossible to make the type of bold and sustainable commitments it takes to solve real problems, and a lot harder to hire or develop the expertise to adequately address them.
In 2007, in collaboration with then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, my husband Richard and I started the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Today, the partnership manages 18 of the very highest-need district schools, with full accountability to Los Angeles Unified School District. It has more than doubled graduation rates in its schools for the additional cost of about $675 a student, fully paid for by philanthropic dollars.