Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s $400 million gift to Stanford University has the philanthropy police wagging their tongues again. They see these mega gifts to already rich institutions as donors’ ways of stroking their own egos. Instead of giving to Stanford or Harvard, the detractors think that these donors should direct their gifts to “other worthy institutions.” And, what about that tax break Knight is going to get ($158 million according to the L.A. Times)? The Times writer calls for a new examination of how much these endowments cost taxpayers. He argues that nothing in the charitable deductions allowed through the U.S. tax code, “helps steer these activities to works that do the most public good – or any public good,” and then goes on to say, “Before we hail Phil Knight for his charitable instincts, let’s think about how his $400 million gift ($242 million, net of his tax break) could be put to better use.”
Come again?! Let us think about how his gift can be put to better use? What these critics seem to ignore is that philanthropy is not about what one or another organization is trying to achieve. Philanthropy is about what a donor wants to achieve.
How would you feel if someone called into question your choice of a gym because it was expensive? It would not matter to them that you prefer this gym to lower cost alternatives and that you can afford to pay the higher monthly fee. Your decision may make it more difficult for the other places to remain open, after all. Most of us would consider calls for you to change gyms ridiculous because it is your prerogative to spend your own money as you wish.
So, why do we think it’s ok to call donors’ decisions into question? Who are we to tell Phil Knight what his giving priorities should be? Who gets to define which organizations are “worthy” of receiving a mega gift and why is their view point more important than that of the person who actually is giving the money?
So, if you think that Stanford’s endowment is offensively large, here’s a novel idea – don’t give to it. Just don’t think you have a right to tell Phil Knight that he shouldn’t either.