Donation Destination

Posted Oct. 03, 2010, at 4:52 p.m.

Corporate philanthropy should remain a freewill offering, though tax policy can provide incentives for generosity. It would be the mark of a true cynic to cast aspersions on a corporation’s policies on donations. But corporate or personal beneficence is often linked to image enhancement, or, as a worst case, crisis management. The gift to the nonprofit drug rehabilitation center by the Hollywood star busted for cocaine and the purchase of land for wildlife refuge by the oil company with the leaking well are understood in this context.

A recent example of such good-will getting, free-will-giving is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark, N.J., school system. The speculation is that Mr. Zuckerberg, whose net worth is estimated at $4 billion, is trying to distract attention from the soon-to-be re-leased fictional film “The Social Network,” which is said to mirror, unflatteringly, Mr. Zuckerberg’s rise to riches.

Mr. Zuckerberg dismissed the timing as coincidental, saying he had been researching for the last year the best way to improve education. He considered staying anonymous, but Newark’s mayor convinced him to go public, believing the gift would have more impact if teens knew of the connection with Facebook.

Interestingly, he rejected the template of traditional corporate philanthropy, where a nonprofit is created that in turn doles out money to causes it deems worthy.

“Instead of building out a large foundation, I wanted to invest in people that I believe in. That is what you’re doing when you’re building a company,” he said.

That approach suggests another choice philanthropic endeavors face. During the 10 years it operated and flourished in the midcoast area, credit card lender MBNA made headlines for its big-ticket generosity to community institutions. Libraries were renovated, fire departments upgraded, schools improved, YMCAs and museums expanded, and blighted buildings torn down and parks established. College scholarships were awarded and, in a much quieter way, low-income students were given new backpacks and teachers got classroom supplies school budgets couldn’t fund. It was a heady time for residents and those working in the targeted sectors.

When Bank of America purchased the company, it pledged to donate $100 million annually, but would do so at the national level. So instead of creating dramatic changes in the community, Bank of America’s philanthropy was directed to large foundations which in turn made grants to organizations, probably including some operating in the midcoast. Was the impact the same? No. But the money was spread more equitably around the country, which is where Bank of America operates.

Of course, there’s another part of the philanthropy story, though those who practice it wouldn’t choose that $25 word to describe it. It’s the local pizza place, shoe store, building contractor and dentist who donate gift certificates for raffles, buy new bats for the baseball team, build an addition to the scouting group’s lodge and pick up the tab for repairing the town ambulance. These donors also are working on a kind of social network, one that may last longer than Facebook friends do.

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