November 20th, 2014
Powerful Giving Isn’t Always Big Giving
A funny thing happened on the way to creating a foundation. While working at the Center for Community Change, my good lawyer friend Tom Asher called. He was completing IRS paperwork to setup my new foundation, but we had no name. To complete the form, all we needed was a placeholder: “How about ‘A’ Foundation?” “ Ok”, Tom replied, “But they need a back up”. I grabbed a phone book (yes, ancient times), flipped through the pages, landed on “D” and saw “Discount”. There you have it. “A” was taken, Discount was born.
As a teenager, I was aware about money coming from my father’s electronics business, but was interested in other things. Like many in those days, I was politicized by the Vietnam War and worked on a bank boycott organizing project. I realized that I needed to learn about economics to get to the root of the problem so I earned an economics graduate degree and ended up focusing on redlining issues at the Center for Community Change in DC. By the time I inherited some money, I knew I wanted to put some of it to use fighting poverty through a foundation.
Discount is a small foundation concerned with large social and economic problems, focused on supporting winnable campaigns around economic opportunity for the poor, including immigrants. We did not start with a lot of money (maybe ‘Discount’ was appropriate after all --although I later contributed more, probably totaling around $10M), but enough to change the conversation and have an impact on issues like the living wage.
For me, the Discount Foundation board functions like an extended family. We don’t have term limits. Board members are people that I deeply trust to make strategic decisions about getting money into the hands of people most impacted --all of them come from the social change field. Together, we’ve grown wiser over the years - some have passed on. After thirty five years, I decided to spend down the foundation’s assets by 2015, using the money here and now for change rather than keep operating.
A parallel but related track in my life involved banking and using money to address income disparities and advance economic opportunity. I’ve always had a perverse fascination with banking, so after attending Columbia Business School I put on a banker’s suit and set to work on things like helping underwrite the second largest union based ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) in the US at that time with Republic Engineered Steel Products. It was great fun (not quite Wolf on Wall St, but close enough). When the recession of ’89 hit, the leveraged buyout group was shrunk and I moved to another part of the bank to help create a community bank within the Bank of Boston. We did well and were even featured in Fortune Magazine as a national leader in urban revitalization. From there, I became Executive Director at Doorways to Dreams Fund which merges financial innovation and asset building for wealth creation to boost social mobility. But as the years wore on, I found myself waking up at 4 am thinking about what I was not doing, cramming too much into every day and wanting to have more family time.
I retired in my early 60’s, trading in my banker’s suit for everyday comfortable clothes which sometime cause my wife Shanti and two daughters, Julia and Victoria, (affectionate) embarrassment (what’s wrong with socks & sandals?). I’m active on a number of boards and help oversee the construction of multifamily housing surrounding my church. I also jam with blues bands, practicing in a sound box I built in our basement and performing in local bars.
Sometimes, I review Discount’s work with a critical eye—did we achieve what we set out to do? Income and wealth disparity is greater than ever and unions are on the decline. We didn’t analyze the political economics of the world properly. I’m not sure what we would have done differently…still, it’s important we don’t pat ourselves on the back. Maybe, that’s why I play the blues.
Through Discount, my activist, and banking experiences, I know that tough jobs are where we learn the most. And, at the end of the day, what really matters is mobilizing people to be politically active to achieve social change. For me, philanthropy is simply a vehicle for doing the right thing in life. I’ve seen how small amounts can dramatically help groups gain power and stop wage theft or protect workers’ rights; that is why philanthropy is important and why it matters.
Don’t DISCOUNT what you can do!