Vincent McGee, Aaron Diamond Foundation: Spending Out as a Philanthropic Strategy

January 10, 2007
Vincent McGee, Aaron Diamond Foundation: Spending Out as a Philanthropic Strategy

It's a classic debate: whether to endow a foundation "in perpetuity" or to "give while living," endowing a foundation only for a limited period of time. Proponents of the former argue that perpetual foundations are best able to put long-term money into solving long-term social problems, serve as a critical pool of risk capital for solutions to unanticipated future problems, and/or enable a donor to ensure the continuation of a family philanthropic tradition after his or her death. Those who favor limited-term foundations argue that it's irresponsible, even immoral, to keep large amounts of tax-advantaged wealth on the sidelines when present needs are so great and that limited-term foundations are the best way to ensure that a foundation's assets will be spent in accord with the founding donor's intent.

One of the best-known recent examples of a limited-term foundation was the Aaron Diamond Foundation, which awarded more than $200 million in grants as it spent itself down over a ten-year period between 1987 and 1996. Although active in the areas of education, arts and culture, and human rights, the foundation was most famous for its focus on and funding for AIDS research — and for the feisty leadership of its president, the late Irene Diamond. It was funding from the Diamond Foundation, for example, that made possible the establishment, in 1991, of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, under the direction of Dr. David Ho. ADARC subsequently pioneered the use of combination drug therapy to control the disease — a development that has helped reduce the death rate of HIV in America and Western Europe to one-fifth of what it was in the late '80s and 1990s.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Vincent McGee, the former executive director of the Aaron Diamond Foundation, about the Diamonds' decision to convert their family foundation into a limited-term foundation, the foundation's work in the field of AIDS research, Mrs. Diamond's role at the foundation, and some of the lessons McGee has learned over thirty-five years as an executive and consultant for nonprofits and foundations.

McGee served as vice president and secretary of the Irene Diamond Fund from January 1994 to March 2002 and as executive director of the Aaron Diamond Foundation from May 1985 to December 1996. Prior to that, he was executive director (1980-1985) of the Hunt Alternatives Fund, vice president for development (1977-1980) at the City College of New York, and executive director (1973-1975) of the DJB Foundation. He also spent a year in jail in the early '70s for his anti-war activities, where he broke bread with the likes of Carmine DeSapio and Bobby Baker, and rubbed shoulders with small-time embezzlers, a two-star general, several high-level Mafia types, a group of Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other war resisters. "My higher education," McGee adds, "was enriched by working on the production line at Eastman Kodak while attending the University of Rochester during the mid-'60s racial struggles in that city and by working for a New York City law firm while attending Hunter College at night."

He continues to work and consult for a number of individual donors and foundations, including the Overbrook Foundation and the Atlantic and Epstein philanthropies, and serves on the boards of the Baker Foundation, the Balm Foundation, the Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society at CUNY, FoodChange, PATH, the Rockefeller University Council, and the Sister Fund.

Philanthropy News Digest: You've had an interesting career in philanthropy. What were some of the advantages — and disadvantages — to moving around and doing as many different things as you have?

Vincent McGee: Well, in fact I didn't move around as much as it may seem. I was at the Aaron Diamond Foundation and then with the Irene Diamond Fund for seventeen years, the bulk of my career. I started in philanthropy at the DJB Foundation in March of 1973. But I'd been doing work in the nonprofit world and with donors since the late 1960s. In those years I was the executive director of the six-thousand-member Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace. I ran their operation in Washington, where I lobbied, gave speeches, and organized. People in the broader anti-war movement assumed that our group had a great deal of money, and they often came to us looking for funding. Sometimes, I was able to match their requests with business executives who had their own foundation or who were willing to give money out of their own pockets. After a few years, Carol Bernstein, the widow of one of those executives, Daniel Bernstein, hired me to help her and her second husband, W.H. "Ping" Ferry, with the DJB Foundation, as well as with their personal giving.

It was rich experience for me, and it helped me to look at life from a variety of perspectives. Among other things, I learned to avoid preconceived notions and labels, as well as how to meet people where they live and how to listen.

As I like to say, the business of philanthropy comes down to asking, saying no, and saying yes....

In the foundation world, there are certain power dynamics that people don't pay enough attention to. As I like to say, the business of philanthropy comes down to asking, saying no, and saying yes. Most of us on the donor side really don't appreciate how hard it is to have to ask all the time. In contrast, foundation board members, officers, and staff spend most of their time saying "no" — usually graciously, sometimes peremptorily or indirectly, and often after making the applicant wait longer than is necessary. Obviously, it's much better to say "yes." But common courtesy — answering the mail and returning phone calls — goes a long way to lightening everyone's load.

PND:vHow did you meet and become involved with the Diamonds?

VM: An attorney involved in Mr. Diamond's real estate business had been on the board of Amnesty International with me. He knew I did work with foundations and donors and he introduced me to Mrs. Diamond in the fall of 1984, several months after Mr. Diamond had died, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. Earlier that year, the Diamonds, both of whom were in their seventies, had planned to activate the foundation they created in 1955 but had used mainly as a "pass-through." They did most of their giving directly, outside the foundation. But by 1984 they had decided to return a significant portion of the money Mr. Diamond made in real estate to institutions and people based in New York City, where he made that money. They also chose three areas in which to focus their giving — medical research, minority education, and culture — and decided that the foundation's endowment should be spent down within a decade of the death of either of them. Mr. Diamond also asked that his businesses be liquidated within five years of his death, the proceeds going to the foundation or to Mrs. Diamond.

PND: So it was his idea to spend down the foundation's endowment?

VM: They came up with the idea together. Mrs. Diamond seemed to support the concept when she and I first talked about it, but as the foundation began to ramp up its activities she became more and more convinced that spending down was the right thing to do. She subsequently included in her will a similar provision for her own wealth.

PND: Did you encourage her in that decision?

VM: I did. I had already been involved in a spend-down with the DJB Foundation and understood the rationale. Spending down is an attractive option for many people — though clearly not for every foundation or donor. The Diamonds liked the concept, and that was fine with me.

We had about a two-year lead time before we started the ten-year countdown, largely because of complications related to the liquidation of Mr. Diamond's estate. So there was a delay in those assets being released to the foundation, which gave Mrs. Diamond and me and her other advisors time to develop our program.

Even early on, we saw that AIDS was an area in which the foundation could have an impact. Irene Diamond was the farthest thing from homophobic, and she had enough interest in and knowledge of science to recognize that AIDS was a virus spread by blood, by sexual fluids, by dirty needles, and so forth. We were being advised by Lewis Thomas, the well-known essayist and former head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He told us to go for it and to learn as much as we could about the virus.

We didn't have preconceived notions about the role we might play....

So we dug in. We didn't have preconceived notions about the role we might play. We simply saw ourselves as giving established researchers the resources necessary to get involved with the AIDS virus, hoping their work would produce results that might qualify for federal funding, in larger amounts and for a longer term than we could ever provide. The concept of the Diamond AIDS laboratory itself evolved from the observation that many institutions in and around New York City wanted to do AIDS work but didn't have the protected lab space and other facilities needed to work in a serious way with this kind of retro-virus. To make a long story short, we quickly found space in the Public Laboratory Building and devised a plan to have a private corporation lease the space. Stephen Joseph, then the city's Commissioner of Health, assuaged our concerns about working with a large city bureaucracy, and eventually the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC) was incorporated. Funds to cover the initial planning and research costs came from the foundation. Funds to cover building renovation costs came from us and from the city, which leased the space to us for twenty years at $1 per year.

PND: This was 1986, 1987?

VM: The foundation made its first AIDS research grants in 1985. The concept for ADARC took shape in late 1987, early 1988, and was formalized in 1989. The lab's doors opened in April 1991.

PND: Did you and your colleagues do anything special to educate yourself about the virus?

VM: Well, there wasn't a huge amount to read at first, so we learned as we went along, talking to researchers, working with Dr. Thomas and with our second medical advisor, Alfred Gellhorn. He had been dean of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and was recruited by City College, where he created the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education and where I first met him in the late 1970s. After I started working at the Diamond Foundation, I asked him if he would come in and meet Mrs. Diamond, and he agreed to help us. Later, both he and Dr. Thomas joined the board of the foundation, then the board of ADARC. They were the ones who interpreted the science into lay terms for the rest of us.

The more we learned, the more we realized there needed to be a significant AIDS research center in New York City that could work with different researchers and research institutions. New York had become the epicenter of HIV/AIDS in the United States and desperately needed a research effort that was focused and that cut through the institutional competition and red tape normal in the early stages of a new epidemic. The initial academic affiliation for the scientists at the lab was with New York University Medical School, but eventually ADARC settled in at Rockefeller University and its renowned clinical hospital.

PND: One of your great successes was finding Dr. David Ho to head up the lab. Serendipity?

VM: Actually, no. It was the work of a search committee chaired by Dr. Edwin Kilbourne, an influenza expert at Mount Sinai, and comprised of Dr. Thomas and several senior scientists in New York City research institutions. Mrs. Diamond and I were on the committee ex officio. The committee went about the search in a very serious, methodical way, and as it narrowed down the field of candidates the main issue came down to whether we should choose a young person with talent and promise or a senior person with operational experience who could come in and get things going. Mrs. Diamond opted right from the start for the former — for a person, as she put it, "who's hungry for action." We were fortunate to find Dr. Ho, but it wasn't serendipity.

PND: With the foundation committed to spending down its assets in a relatively brief period, what, if anything, did you do about evaluation? Did you have goals and objectives from the start? Did you try to develop specific benchmarks beyond your broader goals over time?

VM: Mrs. Diamond was a quick study. She and I would meet daily. We were often joined by a scientist or a member of our staff; we had an excellent staff. Mrs. Diamond had been a script and talent editor in Hollywood — she worked with Hal Wallis for a number of years, and her claim to fame was finding the script that became Casablanca. At the foundation she saw herself as the boss with big ideas and me as the technical expert who did the work and ran the office and staff. Maybe it had something to do with working through the problems associated with the settling of her husband's estate, but for various reasons we learned to trust each other implicitly. That doesn't mean we didn't have our differences; sometimes we argued like cats and dogs! But our scrapping would always end with a laugh, and we'd be back on track quickly.

We also had a high-powered board that didn't micromanage our activities. In its formal meetings, which it held four times a year, the board would talk through new ideas, review what we had learned, and approve startup grants and various changes to the program. Remember, these were busy people, and to get them on the board in the first place and then to keep them focused on a highly technical, changing field required a lot of work.

Mrs. Diamond was not a fan of comprehensive and costly evaluations....

Mrs. Diamond was not a fan of comprehensive and costly evaluations. First of all, we had a ten-year time frame in which to accomplish something and we were learning as we went along. It wasn't unusual for us to make a small grant on a sort of trial basis and to increase support if the work bore fruit. Project leaders were encouraged to let us know early if problems materialized. In those cases, we would change the grant agreement and adjust the plan. We were also willing to provide general support, in addition to project support, on the theory that people who were scrambling for the latter shouldn't have to worry about how they were going to keep the lights on. In the case of some of the larger institutions we worked with, it wasn't unusual for us to fund as many as three different projects or programs in addition to providing general support. Later, as we moved into the wind-down phase, we intensified our work with technical assistance and management groups, and by using our power to convene — usually by bringing people together in our conference room — we did our best to ensure that there were multiple funding streams for many of the projects and activities we supported and to move work onto public budgets where possible. It turned out to be a very successful model.

PND: The Diamond Foundation was known for its pathbreaking work in HIV/AIDS. Did you have the same kind of success in other program areas?

VM: Yes, especially in education. Early on, some of our board members wanted to focus on increasing minority enrollment in prep schools and elite institutions of higher education. That was not Mrs. Diamond's interest, nor mine. Fortunately, with the help of several others on the board, especially Dr. Gellhorn, we began to explore how to make a difference in the basic quality of public education in New York City, from preschool on. Our thinking was that by doing something to improve the system, we could help many, many more students and raise the level for everybody.

As I said, we got some good advice and over time we helped to develop a number of effective programs. For example, we pioneered many of the things that are now known as the New Visions Schools, which the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and others are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into around the country — breaking up big schools and creating smaller, themed schools where young people connect to a specific focus and get more attention. To make that work, we also helped start minority recruitment programs for principals and teachers and collaborated with Agnes Gund's Studio in a School and others to bring the arts, which had been eliminated from most public schools during the city's fiscal crisis in the mid-70s, back into the curriculum. Toward the end of the foundation, we also funded a survey of arts education in the city that laid the groundwork for a special Annenberg Foundation grant which prompted city funding for a restructuring of the arts curriculum in the schools.

In the area of arts and culture, we developed a focus on performing arts as a career vehicle for young people in music and dance, with film as a smaller area of interest. Because of Mrs. Diamond's long-standing interest in free speech, personal liberties and human rights, we also developed programs in those areas. Mrs. Diamond also made large personal grants outside the foundation to expand the minority presence at Julliard and gave $30 million over fifteen years to Human Rights Watch.

And though we initially set out to keep the foundation's AIDS work focused on medical research, we quickly became aware of the problem of AIDS in other settings — for example, children having parents with AIDS or being infected themselves and how people living with HIV/AIDS were discriminated against at school and in the community. We discovered the importance of educating young people and teachers about AIDS, as well as the absence of AIDS in health education curricula, and so forth. As a result, we quickly moved AIDS as a focus into our education and, later, human rights work. When people began to recognize our work as being ahead of the curve, particularly when we started a program for AIDS education and condom availability in the public schools, Mrs. Diamond would say, "I'm a grandmother. We ought to be talking about this candidly. This is a disease that can be avoided, but people have to know how it's transmitted and they have to change their behavior based on the facts." The Aaron Diamond Foundation was seen as a model because there was a consistency and integrity across the spectrum of our program activities.

PND: Would the foundation have been as successful if Mrs. Diamond herself had not been as active and committed a donor as she was?

The board understood that this was a ten-year program and that their participation was very important....

VM: No, she was the key. The other part was that she and I and the staff worked well together and the board respected what we were doing. They understood that this was a ten-year program and that their participation was very important — being a sounding board, generating ideas, and setting policy. They knew they were stakeholders in the foundation's success, but also that they had a different kind of ownership in that success. Almost all of our board members had an active interest in a nonprofit organization as an active volunteer or a founder, but they resisted pitching their own projects to us unless it clearly complemented work we were doing. That was crucial, and it made it easier for everyone; we were able to avoid the internecine power struggles that frequently develop whenever money, power, and influence are involved.

PND: Did Mrs. Diamond consider her involvement with the foundation a full-time job?

VM: Yes. She would come into the office four days a week, for five to six hours. And when she wasn't in the office, we were on the phone, or out and about meeting people or doing things in the evening. In the years I knew her, she became a vocal advocate for spending money while you are living with lots of her friends and associates. Some of them give her credit for getting them to think about using their resources to make a difference and having the satisfaction of acting philanthropically while still alive.

PND: Those ten years must have gone by quickly. Did you and your colleagues do anything that, in retrospect, you wish you had done differently?

VM: In a couple of areas we on the staff were sorry, as we got closer to the end, that we didn't stick with a few things for a longer term and argue more with Mrs. Diamond. She didn't like or have the patience for process and long learning curves. She once said to me, "Look, you have youth and time to talk about process. I don't. I'm the fire engine driving your process down the street!" That impatience was energizing, but at times it cut conversations shorter than they might otherwise have been. But you don't get to play the game over. We had an extraordinarily effective run that was characterized by a low level of acrimony and a lot of joy and satisfaction.

PND: In the past, you've criticized foundations and foundation culture for being insular, overly cautious, and arrogant. With all of its success, how did the Diamond Foundation avoid those pitfalls?

VM: Well, we tried to listen, listen, listen, and learn. We tried, to the best of our ability, to walk in other people's shoes. We'd ask them to forget about what they thought we wanted to hear and to tell us what they needed. We had our focus and we kept to it mostly, although we made exceptions when the situation demanded it. We also made decisions quickly, especially when we had to say no, and we tried to give helpful suggestions when we did say no.

PND: As the foundation field has grown in size, assets, and diversity, do you think foundation culture has changed?

VM: In many ways, yes. But so has the culture around us. My critique of the power dynamic in foundations is similar to my critique of power in business and government: it's overly "top-down." People with power rarely take the time to listen and pay attention to people without as much power. Similarly, we rarely admit how little we know about reality for the under-resourced. It's partly attributable to the shortness of attention spans in our culture, our tendency to "learn by sound bite." And, of course, people are all too willing to tell people in power what they think they want to hear.

Listen, it's not easy to give money and resources, advice and counsel, effectively. Many foundations and donors feel that adequate staffing is a luxury, that having professionals around is a luxury, and that boards always knows best. Sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's not. I often ask business executives or lawyers who are on boards how they feel when those who don't have their expertise or training second guess their professional decisions. I ask them if they look to professionals and specialists when entering a new business or area of practice. I ask them whether they trust those professionals and how they use them effectively, without sacrificing the right to make the final decision.

To do philanthropy well, you need practice, you need humility, and you need to listen and learn new skills....

There is a significant infusion of new money into philanthropy, much of it from younger entrepreneurs who have had brilliant success in specific industries and think this experience will automatically translate into nonprofit work. Many quickly discover that lots of money and time can be wasted learning how not to do philanthropy. To do philanthropy well, you need practice, you need humility, and you need to listen and learn new skills.

It's also true that those of us who work in foundations and nonprofits want to keep our jobs. We're careful not to rock the boat too much and often don't speak as candidly as we might or should. But while it is essential to speak candidly, timing and context are important; you need to wait for the right opportunity and have the right research or information at hand when you make your case. Only then will candor lead to positive results.

PND: Who should have the final say in deciding whether the results of a program are positive? The foundation or donor or the grantee?

VM: Foundations and nonprofits increasingly are being asked to demonstrate results, and more and more of them are using funding strategies and metrics to measure outcomes and publicize them. That's fine. In fact, it's important, because good work and resources can be wasted if people don't know how to budget or formulate strategies to plan for the future. There's a delicate balance, however, between who funds the process and who is responsible for making the decisions. Is the nonprofit doing something mostly because a donor or a foundation wants to fund it? Or not doing something because it might cause controversy or generate public scrutiny? Is it paying too much attention to a local legislator's complaints, to management consultants and advisory and foundation program staff who may not know as much about a subject area or the specifics of the nonprofit's work as they think they do?

It is very hard for nonprofits that need funding to say no to a donor, to push back with hard questions, or to say, "That's too much your strategy, your idea of what we need — and too much money. It will ruin us." The danger is what I call funder-sponsored mission creep, and you see it all the time — missions that keep changing to fit a funder's agenda or the shifting sands of public opinion. It's something nonprofits and foundations need to think more about: if you were established for a specific purpose but are continually morphing into something else, you're probably not going to be as effective as you could or should be. It's also fine to go out of business when a job has been accomplished, or to join forces with others to accomplish a goal or set of goals.

PND: The idea of too much money would strike most nonprofit executives as exactly the kind of problem they'd like to have.

VM: Too much money often creates a higher risk of failure than having not enough. If things are working well, more funding can usually be found. But you can't take money out of a project once it has been committed, even if the project is going off the rails. I also think there's value for nonprofits in having to go out into the marketplace to look for money from donors and the community and the public sector. Doing so is a good way to test your ideas against the competition. If you have more money than you need and are able to hire whomever and do whatever you want, things get taken for granted. You're also less likely to take advantage of a lot of the people and resources in a community that would benefit from participation in your project.

PND: Foundations often seem to be most comfortable working behind the scenes. Given the higher profile of philanthropy these days and increased scrutiny of the field, do you think it's appropriate for individual foundations to be less cautious about promoting their efforts and activities?

VM: Absolutely. So-called private foundations are actually a public trust — they're funded with tax-exempt money which otherwise would have largely gone to the government. We need to be open and accountable as a field, we need to be less thin-skinned and more available to those who seek assistance, and we need to try more things in the hope that the public sector might fund them down the road.

But it all has to be done carefully. I don't like situations where all of a sudden a foundation that has been active in a field decides it's not going to make grants for a year or two as it re-evaluates its program. That can be very destructive, both in terms of the foundation's responsibility to specific projects as well as to the broader field. In situations like that, it's much better, in my opinion, to phase out a program gradually in parallel with open discussion and lot of consultation and transparency. It's important in change situations to listen and to pick the brains of the people you've come to know and trust. But don't take advantage of them. If you ask project people to do some serious thinking, give them adequate time and funding to do it well.

At the same time, it's important for foundations to stick with a focus for a reasonable period of time. Every field has a learning curve and it takes time to master the basics, to achieve something, and then have a wind-down that gives other funders or the public sector adequate time to pick up where you left off.

You're seeing more of that kind of thinking in the bigger foundations, where the foundation will commit a portion of its resources to a specific field or area over a fixed period of time. The idea is to see how it works and then, after ten years or whatever, to make a decision about sticking with it or moving on to something else. In either case, it's important to commit to a healthy investment of both time and money up front, as well as to the intellectual legwork that is part and parcel of any successful program, and to do everything humanly possible to make sure the lessons learned from the project are shared as widely as possible.

PND: Is it also important for foundations to communicate their failures?

That's how everybody learns — from failures as well as successes....

VM: Again, absolutely. That's how everybody learns — from failures as well as successes. One of the first things I look at when considering a new proposal or project is the budget and the list of funders. My comfort level goes way up if I see foundations or individual donors whom I respect already giving support. If I have a contact, I'll pick up the phone and say, "I've just seen something from so and so, what do you think?" Or, "Why are you funding them — or why have you stopped funding them?" It saves you from having to reinvent the wheel. The same thing applies if you make a mistake. You have to ask, "Whose mistake was it? Did we really understand the proposal? Did we put in too much money? Were our expectations too high? Had we thought through our involvement going forward?" When something fails, you have to take the time to look for the positives and any lessons learned, and to at least consider how some amount of continued support can help the organization or the field learn something from the experience.

PND: Back in 1987 you suggested that restoring public faith in government and other institutions was a worthwhile challenge for philanthropy to take up. Do you feel as strongly about that today as you did twenty years ago?

VM: I feel more strongly about it. In the last five to ten years, particularly since 9/11, the confidence of Americans in their government and other institutions has sunk to historic lows, as has the confidence of the world in us. The mixed participation rate of Americans in the electoral process is just one illustration of the disillusionment and feeling of powerlessness experienced by many, many Americans. But how do people find the hope and optimism that would motivate them to participate? Foundations and nonprofits can do a lot about that. There is a growing appreciation, for example, of the importance of ethnic media and grassroots publications in minority and underserved communities. In California, more people get their news and commentary from ethnic media than from the mainstream media. San Francisco-based New America Media, for instance, has become a model for promoting minority voices nationally. Similarly, institutions of all kinds increasingly are perceived as being less responsive to the commonweal and more likely to serve the interest of big business. That's not a sustainable trend. If allowed to continue, it will ultimately destroy the fabric of this country and turn our friends into enemies. Philanthropy can and should play a much bigger role in documenting the influences of and changes in the global economy, in informing the public about transnational issues, in funding research and scholarship on solutions to transnational problems, and in leading the way with bold new ideas. There's a lot more we can do to step up to the plate.

PND: In terms of specific problems or issues, where do you see the best chance for philanthropy to make a breakthrough over the next decade or so?

VM: I would say continuing to play a leading role in coming up with solutions to public health crises, to ending malnutrition and hunger, to addressing looming water shortages, and to mitigating global climate change. It's a tall order, in that it will mean doing things to change the activities of not just the U.S. government and corporate America, but governments, businesses, and citizens around the globe.

It also means working in a more focused way to change the climate of opinion in the United States and elsewhere through research and the dissemination of objective research findings. And it means working to influence the media to see problems differently and to help shape the development of new media forms that are available to the masses. We can do that, in part, by developing cheaper laptops and providing Web access in remote areas of the globe. I mean, if you can have a hand-cranked radio, why can't you have a hand-cranked laptop that can connect to the Internet?

In the last decade, thanks to the Web, we've seen whole communities, regions, and even countries leapfrog a hundred years of expensive landline infrastructure, with tremendous results. At the same time, it has opened a Pandora's box of hopes and expectations. Private philanthropy can do a great deal to develop models and document ways that government can connect to this new global, digitally savvy generation. Who knows, maybe it can even figure out a way to change the conversation about taxes and distribution of wealth? I mean, it's crazy to think we can pay less and less in taxes and still live in a fully functioning society, let alone remain a global power and leader. Philanthropy, unlike other sectors, can play a role in changing perceptions of our actions and motives without being inappropriately political; it has much more potential than it realizes to influence and speak from a position of authority.

PND: If you were advising a new donor today, what two or three things would you recommend that person to do in order to be an effective philanthropist?

VM: One, get involved sooner rather than later in your giving and try to learn as you think it through for the long run. Two, learn how to listen and do periodic hard-nosed appraisals of your own expertise as well as your tolerance for change and experimentation. Three, try to be relaxed and open about what you're doing. Talk about it with your spouse and your children and family. Be sure to tell them why you're interested in doing something and try to involve them in your activities. And four, learn from the world around you and don't allow yourself to believe you're the only one who can change it.

There is a great diversity of ideas in philanthropy and great freedom to learn and experience different perspectives. But it's also hard work and requires discipline. Done well, the results can be very satisfying and uplifting. Those of us with a say in the allocation of philanthropic resources have the opportunity to make a significant difference in this world. Having that responsibility and how well we handle it is both a privilege and a challenge. But at the end of the day, you couldn't ask for more interesting or rewarding work.

PND: Well, thanks for speaking with us today.

VM: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with Vincent McGee in November. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.