An Open-Letter to Good-Hearted Billionaires: Let’s Begin a New Era of Progressive Philanthropy Today!

10/19/2017 01:48 pm ET
A handful of the 150-plus Giving Pledge billionaires.
CBS News
A handful of the 150-plus Giving Pledge billionaires.

Dear Good-Hearted Billionaires,

Last year, $390 billion was given away philanthropically according to Giving USA’s recently released 2017 report — $60 billion to educational institutions, 72% from individuals.

In episode 6 of the first season of bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell's new podcast, Revisionist History, we're introduced to Hank Rowan, who saw a little-known college serving low-income students, with a small endowment in New Jersey, and gave it a transformative $100 million gift in 1992. That college is now Rowan University — now a leading research institution for eco-friendly initiatives.

Over 150 of you have now joined the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge (founded 7 years ago), committing to give at least half of your collective $731 billion wealth away in new "bold and effective way[s]," according to Co-Founder Bill Gates, to help address society’s biggest problems (poverty alleviation, health care, education, and the like).

But, I must say (having served as the youngest administrator at the College), another $150 million, $350 million, or $400 million dollar gift to the Harvard's of the world (the foregoing figures being the top 3 individual gifts to Harvard over the past 4 years alone) is not new or "bold." Indeed — with a founding that predates the very founding of this nation, a living alumni base of 323,000 (nearly 3,000 worth more than $30 million — over 50 who are billionaires — worth a collective $622 billion), the slave money that gave its now-$37 billion endowment a head-start to serve a minority of low-income students and enable them to graduate debt-free — neither is it "effective," if the aim is to accelerate social mobility.

And it's not just Harvard. The lion's share of mega gifts in higher education over the past 25 years since Rowan's progressive mega gift have largely been regressive going to elite schools, where, Nobel Prize-winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz reminds us (in his book, The Price of Inequality), only 8% of the students come from low-income households.

Just like the tax-code, progressive philanthropy accelerates social mobility. Regressive philanthropy does not.

So today, I humbly suggest that you place a moratorium on regressive mega gifts to elite institutions, and initiate progressive gifts to low-income serving institutions that have strong records of success. That is, if you expect us to take you seriously when you say that "education is the great equalizer," despite the fact that the cost of higher education began to spike (and the portion of federal financial support for low income students began to plummet) at the time when the Civil Rights Movement had only just begun to enable droves of blacks to cross the Red Sea of institutional racism into the Promised Land of America’s Middle Class — not to mention the (1) persistent segregation and unequal, property-tax-skewed funding of public schools today that create the national dilemma of far too few of our high school graduates being college or career ready, and (2) the disproportionate toll the Great Recession had on black families (from the malicious subprime mortgages — 54.7% of which somehow made it to black homes — that precipitated the recession, to the homes, wealth and credit destroyed in its wake) following “the boom years” of the Clinton presidency (there's no wonder why the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Economic Development reports that it would take the average black household 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today).

Many of you, especially those in Silicon Valley, have finally come around to saying that #BlackLivesMatter (despite tech company diversity numbers that say otherwise). But that's not enough. With the historic uptick in hate crimes nationally since the presidential campaign, you must show it in deed. Show it with an investment that says #BlackMINDSMatter. And you can start today with Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has an unparalleled, 150-year record of chiseling diamonds out of dark mines. Founded a mere 2 years after slavery, with a living alumni base of 17,000 (just a handful worth over $30 million, none who are billionaires), and an under-resourced endowment (less than half a percentage of Harvard's and even smaller than the aforementioned top 3 individual gifts to Harvard over the past 4 years) that serves a majority of low-income students, Morehouse needs a boost to continue the critical future-building work it does and to ensure that its student graduate debt-free like those of elite colleges and universities.

Morehouse College

The goal is $1 billion. With $1 billion, a conservative 8-10% annual return would be enough to make Morehouse tuition free. I'm "bold" enough to believe that this amount can be reached in short order. Indeed, did not the ACLU break fundraising records twice in just two months after the November election?

So, who will be amongst the next cohort of Hank Rowans? Will it be you, Mark Zuckerberg? How about you, George Lucas? Larry Page? Laurene Powell Jobs? George Soros? Steven Spielberg? Richard Branson? Arthur Blank? Dustin Moskovtiz? Elon Musk? Bill Gates? Warren Buffett?

Any one of you can write the check for $150 million, $300 million, $500 million or $1 billion that will literally be a down-payment on the future, where minorities are projected to be the new majority by the mid-2040s (a future that requires this type of tectonic action now to reverse the trend of 1 in 3 young black men under correctional control today). Indeed, Dr. King reminds us that “a society that has done something special against the [African-American] for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

Morehouse graduates raise candles in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on campus.
Morehouse College
Morehouse graduates raise candles in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on campus.

In the absence of responsible government, the buck stops (or, perhaps more accurately, starts) with you.

I'll leave you with the words of Rabbi Maimonides: “The world is equally balanced between good and evil, [and] our next act will tip the scale.”

Sincerely,

Renaldo Michael Pearson

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