10/1/2007 20:55

Poor John Rankin

It's sad that personal meetings with people who are employed solely to provide personal meetings is considered an incentive for donors to give money. I have to assume that the colleges are sufficiently professional as to have good evidence to support their belief that this really works. Someone, I hope, analyzed the increase in income when personal attention was made the order of the day and found, I hope, that the costs of hiring people to do nothing but talk to donors is swamped by the increment in receipts.

John is not at fault for trying to do his job but his job is entirely at odds with why I give money. "I don't want to sound like I'm putting you off," I told him, "but in reality I'm putting you off." That must seem bad enough, but last month I blew off an appointment with him because it was raining that day and I didn't feel like biking to the place we had agreed to meet.

So now he's worried. He's worried (a) that he has offended me by affecting this official and unreal friendship, (b) that I might not continue to support the college, and (c) that the loss of my support will reflect badly on himself.

The best thing to do, I suggested, would be to put my name on a list of donors who do not conform and then to call me when they figure out what to do with us. (I am arrogant enough to presume that I am like somebody else, that I am not completely outside the stream of humanity.)

I doubt that John will be the one to figure out what to do with me. They're looking for weaknesses to exploit. I surely must have some; one is probably that I like to deny that I can be suckered by playing on my weaknesses. John's problem is that my weaknesses are not on his standard list.

It is sad that good and charitable causes should feel compelled to exploit the weaknesses of those inclined to give them small gifts in order to obtain large gifts.

It is sad that small gifts of the size I offer are big enough to attract the attention of the people who are employed solely to provide personal meetings in the hope of obtaining larger gifts and paying their salaries with the increment.

In the worldview of capitalistic philanthropy, there has to be a return on every investment. For the college, the return is primarily financial with some admixture of "good will", as this intangible asset is called by the accountants. For the donor, however, the federal government called the rule "no reward". (The government is a player in every game.) This rule only means no direct financial reward: Nothing of value may be provided in return for my gift. The tax deduction provides a small economic return; it justifies the investment only if the deductions lower the effective tax rate. The personal attention from John returns something else, stroking the sense of self-importance in people who already believe they deserve the money they have.

In this regard, I think I agree with the US tax code: Nothing of value was provided in return for my gift.

We surely have a game here. Call it the Philanthropy Game. It is not Actual Reality. It is something else.

"We want," John said, "to give you the attention you deserve." He might believe that himself. I think that most donors with whom he works have never a second thought about that claim. But if they do think otherwise, they still feel they are getting the return they expect by playing this game with John.

The new and very Western form of geisha girls are former bankers on a fixed salary who play out with their rich clients the illusion of importance and goodness and so induce favors for their employer.