10/27/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014


Which do you like least? Generosity or selfishness?

Perhaps the answer does not need to be that polarized. Most people like to think they are generous. And, most people do think more about themselves than they do about others. Still, many people strike a fair balance between the two and make the best friends and neighbors.

People who like to be widely known as 'the anonymous giver' tend to be more interested in their agenda than that of the recipient.

People who are super modest about their generosity often have a special agenda like avoiding becoming an attractive source from a world full of solicitors. Or, they think their modesty might suggest that they gave more than they really did.

What all this speculation is about is the peculiarities that come with the general subject of philanthropy. Big foundations attract awe and some jealousy from normal people because they often deal in such large sums that the numbers seem unrelated to normal people and the process they employ to decide what to give to is mostly pretty obscure and protected by institutional privacy.

What is not much known is how foundations work.

A foundation can be established several ways by a big tax exempt gift from people or a corporation, by a trust or will. Then a board of trustees/directors selects a CEO who in turn, presumably, with guidance from the board, hires smart, well educated people with some relevant experience in the topics the board is interested in helping.

Then those staff people, who, of course, come with their own circle of friends and experts, go to work and make choices of what they think the foundation should support. And, most foundations give great latitude and discretion to those staff people and their recommendations, which almost automatically become grants.

Those staff people truly believe they are acting objectively and in good faith -- and in the main they are BUT that is where philanthropoidism kicks in and can become a difficult problem for both foundations and the people and projects that need their help.

Philanthropoidism -- which is not in the dictionary -- is a mental condition/attitude that arises when a normal person is endowed with the power to give large sums away (which they had no part in creating) and that person has canvassed his/her experts and thought it through carefully THEN becomes convinced of his/her certitude. Sometimes critics refer shorthandedly to such folks as 'smart asses', which, of course, is not their fault but the fault of the system that put them in that enviable/unenviable situation.

So what, you may think and say?

There are ways to deal with this kind of problem, though they all would require some administrative process. One would be some kind of limited appeal process for aggrieved applicants. Another would be to have peer review of all grant recommendations before they are final. Yes, some back scratching could occur but the singularity of the big P disease would be diluted and 'favoritism' could be minimized and reduced.

The larger relevance of this subject is to reduce the tendency of foundations to move in crowds and not be as open to new ideas, thinking and people as they could be to open up social and economic innovation which is so important to improve our modern society.