September 30th, 2010
September 30th, 2010
As a teenager, I was gifted a significant amount of money. This gift came from my father, who was and is a very successful high-tech entrepreneur. Even as I write this, he's probably out there making more money, and all of it will be set aside for family. It’s really quite remarkable.
I have no real qualms with my father's work – in fact I’m quite proud of a lot of what he's done – but I've never been particularly comfortable with the wealth that it has produced. I am filled with a deep appreciation for his gift and all the things that it has enabled me to do. But I nonetheless feel that it’s much, much more than I’ll ever need. That may seem like a bold statement coming from somebody in his mid-thirties, but the math is actually pretty straightforward. And, more importantly, I feel that it’s more than I even want or should have.
As simple as it may seem to me now, it took me years to come to terms with this situation, let alone to figure out how to respond to it. Somewhere along the way, I started to think of my father as an industrious squirrel who continued to collect nuts – despite the fact that we already had more than enough for winter. And so I made a promise to myself that, by the time I hit thirty, I would get into the nut redistribution business. I set up a private foundation, The Chorus Foundation, over seven years ago. My family has been exceptionally supportive of this decision, asking only that my giving be thoughtful, responsible, and effective. My father has also been an extraordinarily good sport about my comparing him to a medium-sized rodent. (Hi Dad!)
I was able to work my way through this process in relative isolation, but there's no reason why others should have to do the same thing. This is a big part of why I eventually became involved with groups like Resource Generation (an organization that works with wealthy young people to leverage resources and privilege for social change) and Bolder Giving (who we have to thank for your reading this right now).
Currently, the Chorus Foundation has no full-time staff of its own; we rely on outsourced staff from both a family office and Mott Philanthropic, a consultancy that Chorus has been working with since day one. I also chair a small board of trustees.
One of the first things I learned about the world of philanthropy is that – much like anything else – it helps to have a clear mission and a viable theory of change. Unfortunately, I also learned that it can be very difficult to determine either of those things until you start getting your hands dirty. The Chorus Foundation’s original mission was to empower and encourage consumers to make the best possible choices to reduce their environmental footprints, with a focus on climate change. It didn’t take us long, however, to see that the changes we so desperately need will never take place without a broad social movement pushing for deep systemic change. We saw that the climate crisis is embedded in a larger ecological crisis, which is in turn inextricably linked to parallel crises within our political and economic systems. I'm convinced that we'll never make sufficient progress on any of these issues without addressing all of them together. Put simply, we must confront the larger crisis of capitalism.
Unfortunately, “to confront the larger crisis of capitalism” is a kind of vague mission statement, and any theory of change to that end would be beyond the scope of just one foundation. (I’ll save my thoughts on the relationship between philanthropy and capitalism for another time.) Even so, we wanted our mission statement to be commensurate to the challenges that we face. The Chorus Foundation’s new mission is “to work for a just transition to a regenerative economy in the United States.” We do this by supporting communities on the front lines of the old, extractive economy to build new bases of political, economic, and cultural power for systemic change. As an essential step in this process, we must eliminate the fossil fuel industry’s undue influence on our democracy, and accelerate the end of the extraction, export, and use of fossil fuels. This particular transition is inevitable, but we will have to work hard to ensure that it is both timely and just.
Over the last seven years, over twenty-five million dollars of the assets under my direct control have been contributed to the Chorus Foundation, and almost nine million dollars in grants have already been made. The long-term plan is for the Chorus to spend out in its entirety – or to “sunset” – by 2023. We believe that the climate crisis is simply too urgent for us to do otherwise. The remains of my personal assets – including any new gifts or inheritance – will be contributed within that same timeframe, leaving just enough for me to cover my projected cost of living.
I’m very involved with The Chorus Foundation's grantmaking. I’m part of the review of every grant proposal, I make every site visit that I can, and I seek to develop authentic relationships with our grantees. This isn't just a personal preference; it's also grounded in a serious belief that such relationships lead to more effective grantmaking. Funding based on proposals alone is not unlike playing fantasy football; the reality gets lost in the numbers. At the risk of taking the metaphor too far, I want to make sure that I'm also playing catch in the park and watching as many games as I can.
On that note, it’s worth noting that grantmaking is only part of how I engage in social movement work. I’m a founding member of Simorgh, a Boston-based organizing collective whose work focuses on climate, environmental, and economic justice. I often volunteer for the same organizations that we fund through the Chorus Foundation. At the end of the day, I identify as an organizer who happens to have money much more than as a “funder” or “donor.”
Grantmaking is neither an obligation nor a hobby for me, but rather a vocation and an increasingly significant part of my identity. I may never feel like the money is truly mine, but that doesn't mean that I would feel comfortable washing my hands of the matter by delegating the task to somebody else. As a comic book fan, I know from the first Spider-Man story in Amazing Fantasy #15 that, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” For better or for worse, inherited wealth is probably the closest I'll ever come to having super powers.
Thanks for reading this!
More on Farhad Ebrahimi:
Farhad was a co-executive producer on the film, This Changes Everything. Variety review said, "An unsettling but ultimately encouraging documentary about global warming and grassroots activism."
The Chorus Foundation, founded by Farhad has an updated website.
| Northeast | 40 to 59 Years Old | $10-$25M | at least 90% | Inheritance |
| Environment | Fairness | Impact | Passion | Simplicity |
Posted on October 25th by Melissa Everett, Ph.D.
I was focusing on geography and assuming that there would be some kind of strategic (if not philosophical) overlay in terms of your sense of how social change takes place. One of my inspirations has been Renewal Partners and the Endswell Foundation out in British Columbia for their very grounded commitment to one geography and also their "indigenous logic" of what's needed and useful in that place. I am also inspired by what the Garfield Foundation sparked around the Great Lakes by bringing together funders and nonprofits to look strategically at a big question, namely how to transition the region away from coal power. I'm working in a region of around 4 million people where there are a few geographically oriented funders but none that are working strategically on climate and energy action. So I guess my question is how you think about where to give - not just the boundary lines to color within but how to position your giving so that it leverages what others are doing...
Posted on October 13th by Farhad Ebrahimi
Hello everybody! Thanks so much for your kind words, and apologies that recent travels have kept me from replying for so long!
I really appreciate your challenge! I've been thinking a lot about the Chorus Foundation's anticipated sunset schedule recently, especially after hearing John Hunting and Anita Nager speak about the aggressive spend-out goals that they set for the Beldon Fund. John's rationale for that approach makes a lot of sense to me, and the documentation they produced describes a model that I find really compelling. When put in that kind of perspective, I have no doubt that the Chorus can and should be doing more.
That being said, though, I think it's fair for me to push back at least a little bit! As I mentioned in the piece above, I don't want to endow the Chorus beyond its (or my) ability to give thoughtfully. John may have effectively rebooted the Beldon Fund when he inherited his Steelcase stock in 1998, but Beldon had been active since 1982, and as a result I suspect that John already had a reasonably clear idea of what it would take to effectively give $130M over 10 years. If I told you that I had that kind of perspective right now, I'd be lying.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that I'll need 16 years to develop an effective spend-out strategy. But! I do think that there's a risk of giving ineffectively if I don't pace myself. This may prove to be a contentious example -- it certainly is an extreme one -- but suppose that I had already thrown every dollar to my name into the pursuit of federal climate change legislation. I don't think it would have changed a thing, despite how many people might have counseled me to do exactly that.
So, I think you're absolutely right to voice a challenge, and I really do want to thank you for it! But, I also want to make sure that I ramp things up in the most effective way that I can. It's a path that I'm really excited to be thinking about right now.
Thanks so much for your suggestions! Regarding your comments on contribution fluctuations, sudden cut offs, etc, I'd like to invoke the Beldon Fund again. Among other things, I think they were very thoughtful about how to spend out while simultaneously transitioning their grantees to a post-Beldon world.
Your comments on effective giving were, of course, very much on my mind when I wrote the above response to Mark. By dipping my feet in the water cautiously, I'm hoping to avoid some of the pitfalls of reckless or stubborn giving. To Mark's point, though, once I have a sense of the temperature and the current of the water, I think I'd be remiss not to jump all the way in.
I've read some of William Easterly's work on humanitarian aid, but I'll have to add Mary Anderson to my reading list!
Great questions! I'd gotten caught up in a long-winded response when I realized that I actually wasn't 100% sure that I knew what you meant by "place-focused giving." Are you referring specifically to the geographical scope (e.g. local versus state/regional/federal), or do you include a -- for lack of a better word -- philosophical component as well? I think I've seen the term used both ways, and my initial response only assumed the first.
Thanks again, everybody! And don't forget to register for John Hunting's Bold Conversation later this month. I swear that my plugging the Beldon Fund so much was a total coincidence, but really who I am to resist such an opportunity.
Posted on October 4th by Melissa Everett, Ph.D.
Thanks to Farhad, Anne and all of you for this very grounded discussion.
I have a question that arises out of my own work in carbon footprint reduction strategies at scales from local to regional. Do you (or others reading) have thoughts pro and con with regard to place-focused giving, and related thoughts on the strongest way to make that case from the perspective of philanthropic strategy? Place-based funders can have a large impact in a defined area and sometimes create replicable models of interest. On the other hand, they're constrained (or focused) to fund what's happening in one place - maybe this means they develop a penchant for capacity building and innovative strategies to get the most out of the reality that's around them? Are there other up-sides and down-sides?
Melissa Everett, Ph.D.
Sustainable Hudson Valley
Posted on October 1st by Milt Lauenstein
Hi Anne and Farhad,
Congratulations on the productive teleconference you led together! Here are some suggestions that the conversations brought to mind.
One of the serious problems faced by grantees is the fluctuations in contributions by foundations that give a fixed percentage of their endowment every year. Having to change the level of activity and having to fire and hire staff according to fluctuations in financial markets is very inefficient. At the PSFG annual meeting, the foundation representatives were all terribly concerned about where to cut back, realizing that their cut-backs would be very destructive to the donees. In possibly every case, that resulted from a policy of giving a fixed percentage of the endowment each year.
A more effective approach is to estimate the kind of return one can expect in the long term, establish an amount to give annually which is less than that, and then to give that same amount year after year. By doing that, I have never had to reduce my level of giving. In the long run, that approach should lead to growth in the fund. When growth becomes substantial, the calculation can be repeated and the annual amount increased.
Another hazard is that when a donor dies, funding for donees would suddenly be cut off. What I have done to eliminate that risk to my donees is to set up a charitable lead trust, so that for ten years after my death, the giving will continue, relieving my grantees from the hazard that when I die, funds would suddenly be cut off. In my case, the granting will be handled by my children. In cases where that would be inappropriate, it should not be difficult to find other reliable people to whom to assign giving decisions.
In the ten years that I have been engaged in bolder giving, I have become aware that much of the giving by foundations and governments has been ineffective and often counterproductive. For example, in spite of billions of dollars in aid that has been poured into Africa in recent decades, the material standard of living there has declined substantially, at least some of which decline has been caused by the giving. A number of examples are cited in Mary Anderson’s book, Do No Harm. When so many mistakes have been made by professional staffers at large foundations and government, it seems likely that persons who have inherited money and have less experience in the real world would do no better. Grant-writers are professionals, expert in persuading givers to give, and many givers are taken in. Bolder Giving could increase the good it does by helping members to avoid giving that is not cost-effective.
While I respect Bolder Giving’s policy of concentrating on encouraging the amount giving rather than its quality, the extent to which that giving is cost-effective and avoids doing harm is at least as important as the amount given. Without serious dilution of its main thrust, Bolder Giving could:
recommend members read Do No Harm and other books dealing with cost-effectiveness and unintended consequences of philanthropy. Example: I just finished reading Super Freakonomics, in which I learned that the energy consumed by a massive investment in solar cells would be greater than the energy produced by the cells for years.
encourage members to collaborate with others, as Farhad has done, with one objective being to share tough-minded methods of evaluating the likely overall results of possible gifts.
include evaluation as part of the agendas of group phone conferences.
arrange phone conferences specifically on how to judge whether possible gifts will do more good than harm.
I was pleased to hear that Farhad’s giving for reducing the carbon footprint focuses on conservation, which is clearly more cost-effective than investing in alternate sources of energy, although that approach also deserves consideration. (There’s more on that in Super Freakonomics.)
I don’t mean to suggest that I am particularly skilled in judging the results of my giving. It will be years before the results are known. I just mean to focus on what is a crucial question facing those of us who want to contribute to a better world. In my case, at least, finding where I can do the most good has been a difficult question to answer, and I have not found reliable places, such as consultants, to give me convincing answers.
To you both: Keep up the good work!
P.S. You can read Milt's inspiring Bolder Giving story here: http://bit.ly/aklKE3
Posted on October 1st by Anne Ellinger
I can see your point. Given the extreme urgency of climate change (in my view, and sounds like yours, too) Farhad could just do as much as possible as effectively as possible with what's in his foundation now, even if that means using lots of the principal. And then add to the principal whenever he gets the chance. Because even a decade delay could be too costly. Farhad, what do you think?
On a slightly different point, I believe that by speaking out publicly, as he's doing for the first time here and will no doubt continue to do, Farhad is likely to inspire far more giving, investing, and activism than all the millions he'll control in his lifetime. That's why a main part of Bolder Giving's work is supporting bold givers to share their stories.
Posted on September 30th by Mark Holloway
Thank you for your thoughtfulness and transparency in giving and the conversation this morning. I applaud you, but I also want to challenge you. You said that you feel you can't responsibly set a sunset schedule until you know the final tranche of money comes from your family. But isn't that just going to go up? He's not going to be taking money from the foundation, right? You said that anyone working on climate change issues should not hold on to their cash because now is the time. I would challenge you to do that as well. If the annual payout is just going to go up in the future, why wait?
Posted on September 27th by Rebecca Adamson
What an inspiration. I had the fortune to hear two Resource Gen speakers and they were dynamite. I am Native American and one of the speakers, Joseph Thalhiemer, was telling us about how all the foundations and NGOs talk about youth and ask them to serve on boards but that then they don't listen to them. We had a great follow up conversation because the same holds true for Native Americans. Whenever we get asked to be on boards they seldom listen to us either. Spending out your foundation insures your voice will be heard. Congratulations Farhad
Posted on September 23rd by Marion Sweeney
How good it feels to find humor mixed with money matters. Your words are grounding and thoughtful. Thanks, Farhad
Posted on September 21st by Gerard Senehi
Thank you for sharing your story Farhad!
your thoughtfulness struck me a lot both in terms of your decision for what to do with your privilege, but also your vision to consider the long run and the future opportunities that will open up over time.
hope our paths cross some time and wish you great impact!