Philanthropy 2020: ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ yields to ‘Breaking Bad’

What Matters

I'd like to think that in our pandemic year "we are all in this together," and that like George Bailey who turned away from suicide in It's a Wonderful Life, our eyes open to the difference we make for those around us as we rejoice in a community where each of our dignities is affirmed.

But in reality, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on those who had fewer means and less status before the crisis. And as we read in Deaths of Despair, suicide and other diseases of self-abuse now kill more Americans without college degrees than heart disease.

It is hard to end the year by counting our blessings and affirming an overlooked community that has been there all along. The 2020 epiphany is more sobering. We have been actively undermining our civic life, and there is not much left of it.

We have "broken bad" and hardly even noticed it, like the school teacher in the popular television series, Walter White, who becomes a methamphetamine kingpin, justifying his transgressions by the economic value and the private possibilities they generate.

We have encouraged accumulation by those who have developed the most economic value, assigning them greater dignity at the expense of those who have less monetary value to contribute. But who decided that merit was the measure of human dignity? Indeed, the first use of the word "meritocracy" was to warn against arranging our society according to perceived merit.

This is the theme of The Tyranny of Merit. Michael Sandel does not merely reveal that our meritocratic institutions rarely operate as fair sorting machines, selecting winners who outdo others on a level playing field. Many of our so-called meritocratic arrangements, from universities' selections to chief executives' compensation, are not as fair as they purport to be. But even if they were, basing social ranking and evaluations of people's worth on the notion of merit creates systems and attitudes corrosive of the common good.

If the distinctions among us are purely merit-based, the winners feel justified in looking down upon those who do not quite measure up. And those who don't measure up; well, they have increasingly less reason to support an arrangement that works to diminish their dignity.

But the notion of merit is so deeply held and taken for granted. It has become the invisible currency with which we evaluate each other. What we forgot in the process is the value of the common good.

Merit-based competition does not account for a superb teacher's value who connects emerging generations to knowledge and shared perspectives that create a functioning society. Walter White's embrace of drugs and crime and his abandonment by family and community make for an eerie mirror image to George Bailey's story.

Bailey returns to his local community and family after an imaginative excursion into a dark version of his hometown that evolved without him and others who place the common good at the core of what gives their life dignity.

This simple counterpoint of these two characters searching for their place in American society separated by over a half-century of history gives you a glimpse into why Sandel's masterful book helps to illuminate so much of what takes place in the background. His exploration of how the merit we unproblematically pursue and use to signal our value to each other has moved us from It's a Wonderful Life to Breaking Bad.

So you may ask, what does this have to do with philanthropy? Well, our students will know how we still often make dubious distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Our scholars unpack the ways measurement and evaluations create unintended effects and dependencies, as we are all becoming more attuned to the power relations that attend to life in and around philanthropic institutions.

At the same time, we shouldn't fail to recognize the immense surge of generosity in response to COVID-19 worldwide and the giving to address racial justice that reveals much that remains inspiring about the human impulse to help and connect. And yet, some of the habits we had been perfecting in the run-up to the pandemic were removing humility and generosity from the ways we judged and rewarded each other.

In Sandel's book, philanthropy does not make a formal appearance, but its absence is palpable as he writes:

"The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility. … Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life." (The Tyranny of Merit, 227)

Though diminished, the possibility of generosity in our public life offers hope as we look to a new year. And suppose you are fortunate enough to have the comforts and possibilities this holiday season to experience the sagas of George Bailey and Walter White.

In that case, I recommend that you bring Michel Sandel along, as his diagnosis could very well help us find useful therapies for a more philanthropic ethos in our public life.

Best regards,

Dean Amir Pasic

Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Taking advantage of CARES Act tax benefits for year-end giving


By Kristi-Howard-Shultz

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was passed on March 27, 2020 to help taxpayers, businesses, and nonprofits in the wake of the pandemic and economic downturn. While the provisions of the CARES Act are set to expire at the end of this year, there may still be time to take advantage of the benefits.

The CARES Act could help nonprofits, gift officers, and donors alike. To better understand its impact on philanthropy, I spoke with Dr. Patrick Rooney, executive associate dean for academic programs and professor of economics and philanthropic studies, who explained a bit more about the Act and put it all into context.

What donors need to know

Individual giving

  • Itemizing

    The adjusted gross income (AGI) limit for cash contributions was increased for individual donors. For cash contributions made in 2020, donors can now elect to deduct up to 100 percent of your AGI (increased from 60 percent).

  • Not itemizing

    The CARES Act allows for an additional “above-the-line” deduction for charitable gifts of up to $300 made in cash. If individuals are not itemizing on their 2020 taxes, they can claim this new deduction.

  • DAF giving

    These new incentives apply only to cash contributions to public charities and do not apply to contributions to supporting organizations or public charities that sponsor donor-advised funds.

  • IRA giving

    The Required Minimum Distribution is waived for IRA and other qualified retirement plan owners for 2020. For donors who still wish to use IRA funds to make a qualified charitable distribution, it is still available up to $100,000 for individuals who are older than 70½.

Corporate giving

The AGI limit for cash contributions was also increased for corporate donors. Corporations can now deduct up to 25 percent of taxable income (up from 10 percent).

What gift officers need to know

The CARES Act may be most helpful in terms of making charitable giving more part of our cultural values and tax policy norms. In other words, it introduces the concept to some and keeps the conversation going for others. As gift officers, we can do several things to promote the benefits of the CARES Act and advance the conversation to benefit charitable giving and philanthropy as a whole.

  • Include this information everywhere you can—on your landing page, as an insert in your next mailing, in your follow-up email, as a set of talking points to use as you make your year-end calls.
  • Keep segmentation in mind. This Act appeals to your donors, in each bucket, in different ways. Tailor your message accordingly.
  • In that segmentation strategy, new/never donors may be the lowest hanging fruit. Develop a special campaign to encourage $300 donations. Encourage everyone to take advantage of this one-time universal deduction opportunity, noting that if their employer matches gifts, they could potentially benefit your mission up to $600 – or more.
  • Be sure that you are nurturing those donors, at every level, with specialized stewardship, new donor welcome kits, and giving levels that correspond ($300 and $600) to demonstrate not only your outputs but also your outcomes.


New report offers first multi-year look at giving to women’s and girls’ causes

The Women and Girls Index report cover

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute released the Women & Girls Index 2020: Measuring Giving to Women’s and Girls’ Causes—its second annual report on the Women & Girls Index (WGI). The WGI is the only systematically generated, comprehensive index of charitable organizations dedicated to women and girls in the United States.

The Index includes nearly 47,000 organizations—3.4 percent of all charitable organizations—that are either: dedicated to serving primarily women and girls (e.g., Planned Parenthood and Girls Inc.) or collectives of women and girls that serve general philanthropic purposes (e.g., Junior Leagues and women’s auxiliaries).

Learn more about the WGI »

Planning for 2021

Bill Stan on 2021 fundraising planning

What will the world of fundraising look like post-pandemic? The Fund Raising School director Bill Stanczykiewicz provides some tips as you make your fundraising plans for the new year.

Listen to the 7 tips »