Steve's Reflections


In 1999 and 2000, Steve Kirsch outlined his thoughts on a variety of philanthropic and political reform topics. Please select from the list to find those of interest to you.

Steve's Reflection #17

Lessons Learned Through a Decade of Giving

Read current information about philanthropy.

This "reflection" is a speech that Steve Kirsch gave on the occasion of receiving the 2003 Legacy Award from San Jose Magazine and Wells Fargo Bank on November 11, 2003.

I want to take this opportunity to share with you five of the most important lessons I've learned over the last decade of giving.

1. Think strategically. There are two kinds of philanthropists: strategic philanthropists and reactive philanthropists. Many people start out being reactive; they establish an overall theme or subject area, and they entertain grant requests in that particular area, for example, "curing cancer." The Kirsch Foundation started out that way and learned that we needed to blend reactive grantmaking with strategic philanthropy. Now we do both. We accept proposals on cleaning up California's air while also seeking out innovative approaches (Kirsch Investigators) and creating new initiatives (Arms Control Advocacy Collaborative) to meet our goals. The whole point of philanthropy, in my view, is to accomplish meaningful and lasting change. The best way to do that is figure out what you want to achieve, create a credible written plan for how to best accomplish it, and then execute that plan. That's not rocket science, but it's amazing how often it isn't done. For example, wouldn't it be cool if our government set a national goal of reducing our dependence on foreign oil by 20% by 2020 and then asked a non partisan panel of experts to draft a plan to accomplish it, and then Congress passed legislation consistent with that plan? Imagine what we could accomplish! My dream is that some day our government could be as strategic as our most successful charitable foundations.

2. Make sure that you are seated and playing at the right tables to accomplish your goals. For our foundation, we started originally making progress mostly at the state level, sponsoring legislation and creating coalitions, and achieving successes (zero-emission vehicles, regulation of CO2 emissions, stem cell research bills.) Today, we are also major players at the national level on medical research (stem cells, cloning), nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, and asteroid identification and tracking. The lesson we learned is that it really pays to invest the time up front to think through whether you are playing at the right table. Quite often, you need to be a player at more than one table in order to accomplish your objective.

3. The greatest leverage, the greatest opportunities for positive change, and the biggest challenges, are in the public policy arena. The sad fact is that today we find that more and more it is the special interests, rather than the public interest, that is driving the course of legislation -- amounting increasingly to a government of the dollars, for the dollars and by the dollars. Monday's San Jose Mercury News, for example, pointed out that our federal government is seeking to overturn California's new law against spam. You really don't have to guess whose interest our government is representing here: It's not the public interest; it's the interest of the Direct Marketing Association. Our foundation hasn't shied away from controversy or the challenges associated with political battles. Unfortunately, private foundations that were created to do "good" are prohibited by law from getting involved in public policy. However, our foundation is a public charity and we're legally permitted to spend close to 20% of our annual budget on public policy lobbying and advocacy, and we do that.

Recently, the Pew Charitable Trusts announced that it would become a public charity in order to become engaged in lobbying. Other private foundations may want to re-think their status in light of what is happening in the world today and how it impacts their goals. I hope that they will do that just as Pew has done.

4. Picking the right goals is critical. This sounds so trite, but it never ceases to amaze me how often we fail to pick the right goals and how often people fail to realize it. For example, our national focus shouldn't be on lowering taxes; it ought to be on increasing people's standard of living. Our national focus shouldn't be holding schools accountable, it ought to be in providing the resources so our schools can become the best in the world. Our focus shouldn't be on fighting terrorism; it ought to be on making the world a safer place. These differences may sound insignificant but they aren't. Seemingly subtle differences in the goal statement can have profound differences in the policies that you'd pursue to achieve those goals. And it is sad to see how often we find ourselves so mired in debating the strategies that we completely lose sight of the goals.

5. The smartest people I know want to give their money away. When I first heard this, I thought it was crazy. After all, when you take a walk in San Francisco, you'll find lots of people asking you for money, but have you ever had anyone come up to you asking you if you could use an extra $100 bucks? So I was always of the opinion that people who gave money gave it somewhat reluctantly. But when I thought about it, it was clear that all the best things in life are not all that expensive and if you have money left over, it made more sense to invest it wisely than save it for a rainy day. And it turns out that the best investment you can make to improve your own standard of living and those you care most about is not to buy things for yourself, but to invest in helping others to be successful. And the earlier you start investing, the bigger the payoff. I learned this lesson more than a decade ago from Leonard Ely. Sadly, many really smart people never learn it.

OK, so now what? I think we're at a very dangerous time in our history. Our government's shortsighted approach to environmental issues, including our refusal to cooperate with other leading nations on global warming treaties and our systematic rollback of environmental protections created over the last 20 years, should be of great concern to all of us. When you connect the dots and extrapolate it out, you end up with a world that is not a pretty sight. Our hegemonic approach to foreign policy is another area where I think we are heading in the wrong direction.

Perhaps you are happy with the status quo and the direction our country is moving in. If you are, you need to do nothing for "they" will take care of things for you. If you believe, however, that we are headed down the wrong path, then I encourage you to get involved and help support those people and organizations that are fighting to make a difference in the causes you believe in. You can give your time, your money, or both. It's the best investment you can make... a legacy that will last a lifetime or more.

Thank you.

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