Naomi Levine: The Paradox Facing Philanthropy Today

Naomi Levine is Special Advisor to the President of New York University; Chair and Executive Director of the George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising; and Chair of the Boards of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and the Taub Center for Israel Studies.

For 22 years, Naomi Levine was Senior Vice President for External Affairs at NYU. In this capacity, Mrs. Levine was responsible for development and fundraising, including a successful $2.5 billion campaign; press and public relations; alumni relations; and all special events relating to and involving alumni, trustees and donors. During her tenure, New York University transitioned from a commuter school at the brink of bankruptcy in the late 70s to successfully completing its first billion dollar campaign in the late 90s raising $2.5 billion.

Previously, Mrs. Levine was the National Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, a national organization concerned with the political, social and economic needs of Jews in the United States and the security of people in Israel and the Diaspora. She was the first woman to hold this position. For many years she was Assistant Professor in Race Relations at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Naomi Levine is a lawyer, a graduate of Columbia Law School (1948), where she was an editor of its Law Review. She is expert in constitutional law as it relates to civil rights, civil liberties, church-state separation, discrimination and the rights of minorities.

Prior to her work with American Jewish Congress, Mrs. Levine practiced law in New York City. She received her undergraduate education at Hunter College (1944) and is the author of several books and articles on intergroup relations. She recently published a scholarly biography of Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State to India, 1917-1918 – a man who played an important role in the history of England before and during World War I.


When we read about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made possible by his extraordinary gift of $30 billion and the $32 billion added contribution by Warren Buffett – dedicated to help eradicate poverty, disease, illiteracy, and to advance education and medical research – and then read of an additional 70,000 foundations in this country, we rejoice in the extraordinary generosity of the American people and the unique role that philanthropy has played in this country.

Oddly enough, I do not think George Washington would be as enthusiastic as we are. In his farewell address to Congress in 1797, he warned against “associations” formed by small groups of people – “an enterprising minority… of ambitious men” that “subvert the Power of the People and usurp for themselves the Reigns of Government.” He and other political philosophers of his day were concerned with reconciling the idea of political equality and egalitarianism with the right of people, usually wealthy and influential people to come together to promote their ideas and their areas of special interest. He worried about the dangers that this provoked for the rest of the population who did not have the same access to the government that wealth provides.

In a brilliant essay, Peter Dobkin Hall states: “Popular intermediary bodies presented a dilemma of which 18th century political theorists were well aware. Formed around special interests… they not only diminished the sovereignty of the state by representing themselves rather than government as legitimate forums for the expression of the popular will, they also favored propertied minorities with the resources to devote to their establishment and perpetuation… The founding fathers having overthrown the greatest military power on earth using voluntary associations such as the Sons of Liberty knew all too well the dangers posed by non-governmental popular assemblies and regardless of their other differences united in denouncing them.”

It was this dilemma that troubled George Washington and continues to trouble anyone who tries to resolve classical democratic theory with the reality of the unequal influence of wealth. Clearly, George Washington would worry about the huge and financially powerful foundations that exist today – not elected by anyone – adopting programs and projects for the country and which, in his words, are “usurping the power of government.” For example, he might worry when he reads that the Gates Foundation will spend millions of dollars to support charter schools which might weaken, and in some cases destroy, our public school system. He might ask: “Who elected them?”

On the other hand, George Washington was astute enough to recognize that because these Foundations are beholden to no one, “no one elected them,” they can take risks, experiment and venture into areas that elected officials cannot go. Such are the paradoxes involved in privately controlled powerful foundations functioning in a democratic state.

George Washington might also be concerned, as the editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly wrote in a recent article that the non-profit sector “may be one of the most class driven components of this society.”

Today more than one third of our foundations and non-profit organizations are created to help alleviate social problems, many involving the poor, marginalized voices. At the same time, these organizations are run by boards that represent the affluent members of society. Again, a paradox. This is a country that was founded by men and women who in one way or another were running away from the entrenched power and wealth of the old world. “A core public ideology of the United States is that the nation was founded to be classless and caste free, with equality and opportunity for all. Our national rhetoric is fiercely democratic and egalitarian. But the facts are at odds with this ideal and the United States now holds the distinction of having the largest wealth gap among the world’s advanced industrial countries,” according to Edward Wolff of New York University. “Where the top one percent of this country owns 38% of all wealth, in Great Britain, our closest rival in terms of inequality, it is more likely 22-23%. This has worsened considerably over the past 25-30 years in this country, even while inequality has lessened in many other major countries.” And this 1% of the country play key roles on the boards of many major foundations and non-profit organizations.

Translated, this means that the rich are speaking for the poor and major changes in our economic, social and tax structure that created this vast gap will not be truly addressed. Instead, the non-profit world tries to make life easier and more bearable for the poor, a noble goal in itself, but one that will not change the forces that created it.

Fundraisers like myself continue to exacerbate that situation. We urge in our fundraising discussions that non-profit organizations try to put on their board people who can financially support them. A board member must “give” money, “get” money, or “get off the board. That is the lesson I preach. And, I point out that the records show that organizations that cannot find such members usually will go out of business. And thus by the very nature of what we fundraisers are doing, we are adding to this problem. Again, another paradox.

But in spite of these factors, the good that foundations and non-profits do – the enormous contributions they have made to this society, and the importance of the diversity of ideas that they have brought, clearly mitigates any negatives that flow from the paradoxes related above. Our country would not be what it is today without them. They have made us the envy of the world and country after country, in our globalized community, is looking to us – to our foundations and non-profits – to help them grapple with their own contemporary problems.

But the paradoxes discussed in this article put a special burden on our foundations and non-profits to function with more transparency, more disclosure, more accountability and openness, and more accepting of better and increased effective government oversight. In this fashion, the foundations and the non-profit organizations would help reconcile George Washington’s concerns about their special power with democratic principles and the reality and complexity of the world in which we live.


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