Reynold Levy

A Call to Alms

VTR Date: October 20, 2008

Reynold Levy discusses asking and giving in philanthropy.


GUEST: Reynold Levy
VTR: 10/20/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and while I’m by no means expert, or even good, at our subject today, I am, unfortunately, quite familiar with it.

Now I say “unfortunately” because I’m afraid I’ve never been particularly capable of carrying my by-now well-worn Open Mind tin cup with equanimity…even though for the past half century – up until this very day – The Open Mind has been made possible only by the generosity of others … those wonderful contributors listed over the years quite frequently at the beginning or end of each program.

“A Call to Alms”…A – L – M – S, that is…is our program’s title, lifted baldly, I admit, from a new John Wiley & Sons book, Yours for the Asking, by today’s distinguished guest, Reynold Levy, President of New York City’s incomparable Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

He knows a very great deal about “asking” … and about “getting”, too (actually having gotten a billion dollars for Lincoln Center since he arrived there in 2002, shortly following New York’s low point right after 9/11).

Of course, for years Ren Levy had been calling for alms as Executive Director of New York’s famous 92nd Street Y … and as President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

He had been giving them, too, when President of the AT&T Foundation. So that I’ve read Ren Levy’s new book, Yours For The Asking, with intense interest, and now will listen most attentively to my guest in order – as my Grandmother used to say – to “take a lesson”.

Because The Open Mind itself will stay on the air only if – as he writes – support for it is there, to use his words, “for the asking” … and if he teaches me well enough how to ask for it.

Now, of course, I don’t know when you’ll see this program – probably not for a while. But it’s mid-October, 2008 as we record it…an erratic stock market has been plunging one way and then another; our economy is in deep trouble; indeed, the world’s economy is in deep trouble; and things surely haven’t been good for those who generally give and for those who have to ask.

So that I want first today to ask my guest if – in light of all that’s been happening to our economy of late — he would prefer to modify in any way the optimism and the enthusiasm for “giving” and “getting” that he shows so compellingly in Yours For The Asking. I think that’s not an unfair question, Ren, do you?

LEVY: I think it’s a very fair question. Much that is going … that should be going up … is going down in our economy. And much that that should be going down is going up. We have unemployment going up. We have the prices of basic commodities going up. We have foreclosures of homes going up and we have a great deal going down that we would prefer didn’t go down … like our, like our stock markets. And our pension fund portfolios and our university portfolios.

So I can understand those who are skeptics or nay-sayers about the prospects for fund raising. I think they’re wrong and I think history proves that they’re wrong.

Since 1950 when we, when data began to be collected in a systematic way about fund raising, there has been no five year period in which fund-raising hasn’t increased, on average, by 4%. No five year period. Including the periods in which we’ve had recessions.

And during the recession years philanthropy dropped by 1% or 2% at most. So in 2007 … $306 billion dollars … $306 billion dollars was given by foundations, corporations and individuals to charities in America. More money than Americans saved in that year was given to charity.

Based upon our experience there may be a 1%, 2% or even a 3% drop next year in philanthropy which would $6 or $7 billion dollars. It can be made up in, in subsequent years and bounce back because philanthropy is very resilient in America.

So, just as you referenced in the opening of the program … ah … 9/11 and the impact … the negative impact that 9/11 had on our cities’ economy and on philanthropy, we bounced back … we were quite resilient. I have every expectation that that will occur through these rough times that we’re facing now.

HEFFNER: Ren, you’re an amazing person, but you’re not a magician. I know that. Yet you’ve been able to raise hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands and then many, many, many, many, many millions of dollars in your career and you maintain this optimism about it. And you say, and I think this is the most important part of Yours For The Asking, you say we could make an incredible dent in so many of the great problems we face, as a society, as a nation, through philanthropy, if we went about it the right way. If we were consistent, if we knew precisely what we were doing in raising dollars.

LEVY: That’s what drives this book. What drives this book is that we can eliminate malaria from the face on the earth. We can eliminate tuberculosis from the face of the earth. We can reduce, significantly, the number of people in this world who live on $2 a day or less. We can strengthen the institutions in America that are highly regarded, but are fragile. Our higher education system. Our hospitals and our research centers. Our think tanks. Our social service centers. Our great artistic institutions. We can do it if we regard that $306 billion dollars as just the beginning. And a great deal depends on how energetically, resourcefully and effectively we ask on behalf of these of causes.

So what, what drives the effort … what, what makes me so passionate about it, is the difference it can make in people’s lives in our country and around the world.

HEFFNER: Well there are two things there … two elements, as I read you. One the difference that it would make … and of course, everyone is going to agree with you on that.

But, two .. .the possibility of doing this largely through philanthropy. I mean I think of the things you want to accomplish and I think of government doing this and government doing that. Quite to the contrary … you think otherwise.

LEVY: No, I think government plays an indispensable role. Government is … the larger the problem, the more it needs to be handled by a coalition of actors. It’s needs to be handled by the for-profit sector, combined with government and the not-for-profit sector in philanthropy.

There isn’t a large scale problem … I believe … that is addressable by any one of these sectors. It needs, needs to be a coalition. Government is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition, to address these problems and address these issues.

And often in our history, the non-profit sector shows the way. The experiments that are funded by philanthropy and proven … then become the road that government travels to finance smaller and experimental successors …

So, there’s … successes .. so there’s an interaction between, between the sectors. I don’t’ think philanthropy, can do it alone, but I think it can be an enormous catalytic force, and has been … historically.

HEFFNER: I can understand if you say that about … about the sciences … if you talk about the contributions, let’s say … that the Rockefeller Foundation and the Sloan Foundation made in the area of science. What about the “arts?”, what about your own particular interest?

LEVY: Well, let’s take Lincoln Center. When Lincoln Center was founded, it was founded almost entirely, almost entirely by private funding. The land on which Lincoln Center buildings are located was a gift in part from the Federal government, in part the State government, in fact, and part from the local government. And government made some contributions to it. But just as today, the critical mass of the funding for the redevelopment of Lincoln Center as for its founding has come from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

And while we regard the support of New York City and New York State for the annual operating budgets of Lincoln Center and all of its constituents, they are 2% of some $750 million dollars as our annual operating budget. So, an enormous amount of the economic engine that drives Lincoln Center comes from the combination of earned income, ticket revenue and from very generous benefactors.

HEFFNER: When you look back over … though you’re a young man, a kid … over a substantial career … ah, you’ve watched fund raising go on, you’ve been the major fund raiser in so many areas. What have the shifts been? What have the differences been that you’ve observed? Where are we now … where we weren’t 20 years ago?

LEVY: Well, I think a very important shift has been what Chief Executive Officers and senior officers of major companies talk about.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVY: 25 years ago or 30 years ago I’ll bet you in their golf clubs they talked about what country club to join. And what second home to buy. And where the next vacation was. And where the yacht was.

And today, thanks to people like Bill Gates and George Soros and Warren Buffet and Ted Turner they’re talking about “Should I have a donor advise fund? Should I create a family foundation? How do I dispense these assets for social good? How do I move from professional success to social consequence? What difference can I really make in this world beyond what I’ve been able to achieve professionally and beyond the private dollars that I’ve raised to support my family?”

HEFFNER: Question: why? What accounts for the shift?

LEVY: Well, I think it’s been leadership. I think it’s been leadership and jawboning. I think when you see enormously accomplished people like Bill Gates, passionate not only about the business that he created, but about using his intellectual fire power and those of his colleagues to address some of the worlds largest problems … that gets a great deal of attention.

When our former Presidents Jimmy Carter and now Bill Clinton devote a very substantial part of their lives to addressing these social problems, to raising dollars, to traveling to Africa, to traveling to East Timor … I think Americans have great respect for that. And, and leadership makes a big difference in philanthropy, as it does in many other fields.

HEFFNER: Now you’re talking about major persons, major corporations, major endeavors. What about the rest of us?

LEVY: Well, you know, you said that we’re, we’re speaking in mid-October and in mid-October we have learned that $150 million dollars was just raised for a political candidate named President Obama …and that the average gift of that $150 million dollars was $90 dollars. It’s been a revolution in political fund-raising. There are as many as 3 million people who have contributed to the campaign of this Presidential candidate.

And it, it’s simply unprecedented in breadth and in depth and so it is in philanthropy. The Internet has meant that the ability of Americans and, and others worldwide to respond to emergencies and to respond to crises with substantial gifts that grow into very significant amounts is now present in a way it never was before.

HEFFNER: Now you’re … when you say the “ability” … you’re not talking about the dollars, you’re talking about the means, I gather.

LEVY: That is correct. That is correct. I’m talking about the means. Americans give on average, 2% of their income to philanthropy. And that’s been a consistent percentage over the last 20 or 25 years. It, it really is built into the habits of American life. Two thirds of Americans volunteer or give money to charity. If, if giving in America is the, the civic equivalent of political participation, more people participate in support of the third sector than vote.

And, that’s how strong the impulse to give is in this country. And I think it can withstand some headwinds, including economic headwinds.

But another feature of this giving process which I emphasize in Yours for the Asking is what it does for the donor. I’m so impressed by every Peace Corps worker I’ve ever met. There isn’t a single one who doesn’t say … “As, as helpful as I’ve tried to be in Kenya or in Uganda, the experience did more for me than it did for those I tried to help.”

And so it is with philanthropy. I strongly believe that the donor benefits so enormously from this experience that it’s a shame on the solicitor who neglects to solicit a friend.

HEFFNER: Ah, (smile in voice) here, here we come to the essence of Yours for the Asking. And I don’t … of course, I want to smile … I’m not laughing at it. It is so, it’s such a wonderful expression on your part of the feeling of your taking from someone if you don’t ask him or her for something.

LEVY: It’s absolutely the case. In fact, one of the incidental by-products of Yours for the Asking is I’ve been getting from readers who take the lessons of Yours for the Asking seriously and enthusiastically, letters that say, “Mr. Levy I’m following the precepts of your book, by asking you for $500 for my favorite charity.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

LEVY: I didn’t predict that that would happen, but I’m delighted.

HEFFNER: And contrasting us with others … overseas … or are you talking about all of us, humankind?

LEVY: You know I think this will become a global phenomenon … it requires structural change in other societies, who do not provide the tax incentives that the United States does for giving. So giving is less expensive.

I once solicited a Frenchman for a gift. And I asked for $10 million dollars, and he said to me, “You know Mr. Levy, we don’t have the tax deductions in France that they do in America. And so it costs a lot more money to give in … if you’re a Frenchman than an American.

And I said, “Fine, I’ll settle for $5 million dollars. And we’ll provide a 50% tax deduction for you right here at this table.” So giving is much more expensive abroad, but with the growth of an upper middle class in so many communities around the world. And with the growth of the number of billionaires around the world and, and the desire for pluralism I don’t think that these countries can any longer afford to be dependent exclusively on government for their social services or for their arts or for their hospitals or for the universities. And therefore I, I think we’re going to see a worldwide growth in philanthropy.

HEFFNER: Let me ask a question that is not a mean question, and I’ve been saying that too often on this program …I don’t know what’s happening. You’ve been associated with major, majorly important activities … Lincoln Center has no equal. The International Rescue Committee … no equal in terms of what you were doing for others. Is this the reason why you have this enthusiasm and the successful record because the charities that you have been associated with … the projects have all be of such a caliber and that this may … might not be true of lesser endeavors.

LEVY: You know, Richard, merit matters. Size matters. Pedigree matters. Excellence matters. But I wrote this book out of a strong belief that the strength, the fiber of art or its sector lies in smaller organizations and newer organizations that are the artifacts of immigration into this country and that are the manifestations of addressing new problems that didn’t exist earlier.

I’m hoping that Yours for the Asking will help new and fledgling organizations, community based organizations, ethnic specific organizations to nurture themselves and, and to grow and to become part of this enormously rich fabric of, of support for, for needs all over the country.

We have fifty thousand Bangladeshi’s in New York City. I’d like to see a Bangladeshi Arts organizations thrive. We have a thriving Vietnamese community, particularly in Queens; I’d like to see the Vietnamese community thrive in its provision for its own people of health and social services and art services. And I’m hoping Yours for the Asking will help them find a way. And there’s actually sections of it that are addressed to small community based groups that suggest how they can build a philanthropic program and build a Board of Directors and build a set of volunteers that can help make that happen.

HEFFNER: Well, I’ve been wondering whether the reason I smiled so often reading Yours for the Asking is because of an age difference between the two of us.

I’m not kidding. I find it very difficult, even for a cause I very much believe in … namely The Open Mind … it’s been around for 53 years … but when I bring the tin cup with me I always feel rather chagrinned that I’m, I’m doing so.

Now do you think that this is a, a function of my generation, the Depression generation and that you’re really addressing yourself to enthusiastic younger people who can identify themselves with these new causes?

LEVY: No. I don’t. I think that’s … that may be part of it … but I think part of the reluctance may be that this is your show. And the show is strongly identified with you. And one of the things I love about this show is it’s face to face … it has no institutional crust, it has no bureaucracy, it, it … Socrates had no Director of Housing; there’s nothing between us that stands between the exchange of ideas. But the show is yours … and, and …

HEFFNER: That makes a difference, true.

LEVY: And that makes a difference because you’re asking not only for the show, but for yourself in, in terms of the way the show is identified. It’s very different when you’re doing it on behalf of an institution.

HEFFNER: Now that’s true. When I was fundraising for Channel 13, when we began … that was very simple …

LEVY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … with great enthusiasm …

LEVY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and we raised one heck of a lot of money to buy the station.

LEVY: So to look over your shoulder and to think about what could happen if you were to provide “x” sum of money to me for Lincoln Center and to think about that result for others, on behalf of others … Trustees hold the institution in trust for service to others. To think about what a difference your gift would make … allows me to ask you for that money, unflinchingly, unhesitatingly … and with great enthusiasm.

HEFFNER: Because I still think it’s a matter of genetic make-up. Now what’s going to happen to us now. Your prediction is that we will weather this economic storm, just as you point out statically, in terms of contributions, that we’ve done over the past half century and more.

LEVY: There are differences about whether this recession will be as short and shallow as others, or whether it will be long and deep. In either case, we will emerge from it and we will emerge from it strong. And it’s, it’s imperative that our universities and our museums and our performing arts centers and our social service centers maintain close touch with their donors, continue to endeavor to diversify, both their sources of funding and their methods of fundraising. It’s easy to be a summer soldier and a sunshine patriot, and give funds when times are good.

My appeal right now is that these funds are needed for these causes now more than ever. And the significance of a gift today is explosively larger than it was a year or two ago. So we’re turning to our friends and making that appeal about how critical a difference their gift would make at this time. And I hope that most of the charities in America join that same kind of chorus to appeal to the best instincts in Americans even at a difficult time.

HEFFNER: Ren, you talked about 2% contributions before. We used to talk about tithing … where does the difference come in?

LEVY: Well, the difference … if you, if you tithe … traditionally a tithe, tithe gift is anywhere between 5% and 10%. I’d love to see that percentage grow. We’ve tried in our own household … we have a little bit of a … my wife’s very supportive of this book and of our work together in the, in the non-profit field. But she had some objection to my reference in the book to our personal giving and what motivates our personal giving. And I wanted to put it in because I wanted people to, to understand that this, this giving pattern is not just for millionaires, this giving pattern is for working people to think about. And we’ve always tried, my wife and I to, to tithe our own giving and we’ve been doing it for some, some 30 years. And I, I hope that we can move that 2% up over time, that, that average. It’s, It’s difficult to talk about now because of gloom and doom in the environment. But those who have furrowed brows … are, are not terribly good fund raisers.

One, one needs to be optimistic and one needs to be resilient. I’ve said that fundraising is not a college exam where if you get one out of every two answers, you have flunked.

Fundraising is baseball … one out of every three times at bat, you get a hit, you’re a most valuable player. So you need to step up to bat more often. It means you’re going to get a lot of “hits”, but you’re also going to get a lot of “outs”. And so you need to be resilient, you need to have a good humor and you need to learn from your experience. And one of the experiences I’ve learned from is that “no” is the beginning of a conversation in philanthropy.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s probably the best possible way in which we can end this conversation, thank you so much for joining me today, Ren Levy.

LEVY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.