Home » Season 2 » Through a Different Lens – A Book, Blood, and Altruism: Thinking About Philanthropy

Through a Different Lens – A Book, Blood, and Altruism: Thinking About Philanthropy

By William Bagley, Advancement Office


Through a Different Lens – A Book, Blood, and Altruism: Thinking About Philanthropy

On a corner in Cambridge in 1974, a day before taking my graduate degree, a favorite professor stopped me and offered a book. He described it as “something you have to read.” Though I had visions of reading a Trollope novel on a beach on Cape Cod, I could not say no. The book, written by Richard Titmuss, changed my life. Its title is The Gift Relationship.[1]

In the late 1960’s, Titmuss was a professor at the London School of Economics. His academic interests would lead him to study philanthropy – but in a very distinctive way.

Rather than look at philanthropy expressed as gifts of money, he looked at philanthropy in the context of the donation of blood. Indeed, as blood can be freely given and is life changing when received, to Titmuss it fell amongst the highest forms of philanthropy.

That said, he also understood that the circumstances underlying the gift had the capacity to make the act either life changing or toxic. He knew too that even if blood was pure, the manner in which it was acquired, processed and distributed might well undercut any philanthropic intent.

Titmuss’ research was multinational – including Western countries with thriving economies as well as developing countries whose economies were challenged. That research would bring him places where safe blood was voluntarily offered and to places where tainted blood was sold, into settings where the families of those who sold their blood had little prospect of receiving blood if they had need of it, and, to places where blood was safely processed and distributed. He would come to see the donation, processing and distribution of human blood in a manner never seen before.

As a social scientist, his analysis was penetrating. Students of statistics and econometrics could revel in the multivariate regression analyses that proved Titmuss’s points. His case was compelling. It is still hard to read the book and not see the vivid distinctions between blood policies that promote blood’s life-saving powers and policies that are either non-existent or weak and lead to the abuse of donations of blood.

Hundreds of pages after I began, I would come to the point that Titmuss had rightly concluded – that how an institution organizes itself has all to do with the promotion of altruism [2]… and in this case, a meaningful form of philanthropy. Let’s draw our focus forward then and think about altruism and philanthropy.

Altruism and Philanthropy

In the U.S., which enjoys one of the most robust systems of philanthropy in the world (including blood donations), the volume of charitable financial giving is counted in billions. Indeed, in the most recently reported data (tax year 2013), it exceeded $335 billion[3] given in support of over 1.5 million non-profit organizations of varying sizes.[4] That amount is greater than 2% of GDP. That so much money is exchanged for a dizzying array of uses, and that those uses are almost uniformly good and beneficial to society, is a matter of real distinction.

Money is given in many ways: by checks sent by mail, through text messaging, online at a non-profit’s website, in cash at a Salvation Army bucket … and many, many other ways. Almost always, such giving arises out of affection for or appreciation of a charity.

Do incentives matter? Yes, to a degree. In the US the practice of offering charitable tax deductions began in 1917, just a few years after the formation of the Internal Revenue Code. Current law is generous and allows those making charitable gifts to deduct up to 50% of Adjusted Gross Income with substantiated gifts [5] When donors have the right to claim a charitable deduction, they often do so. But it is compelling to consider that new research in behavioral economics suggests that the charitable deduction alone may not be the primary reason for the formation of a gift.[6]

A Sign of a School’s Good Health

All of which brings our conversation back to Richard Titmuss and St. Mark’s School. Recall that Titmuss convincingly argued that how an institution is organized has all to do with the promotion of altruism. Assuming that altruism really is a core reason for the formation of a charitable gift, the fact that St. Mark’s has a 150 year-old tradition of receiving charitable gifts reveals much.

From its earliest years, and growing consistently since its foundation, the School has benefitted, in many ways, from the support offered by its alumni, parents, friends and others. In the last fiscal year (2014) that meant that the School would receive over $2.074 million in support to its annual fund alone.

But, consider too the accumulated impact of gifts that formed the School’s endowment over that period of 150 years. Now valued in excess of $140 million, the Endowment, each year, plays a vital role in propelling the School. In 2013-2014 Endowment earnings yielded $4.867 million of expendable funding![7] Many who made early gifts to the endowment in the 19th Century might be amazed and pleased to know the good that has come of their gifts. In some cases, their descendants see it now. From all sources, the impact of that generosity, across so many generations, is seen in the classrooms and labs, on the playing fields and in the dorms every moment of every day.

St. Mark’s steady upward trend in charitable giving suggests that warm philanthropic responses result from far more than chance. If Titmuss was right, and I would argue that he was, the way in which this School is organized – its academic programs and priorities, its relationship to its alumni, parents and students, its legacy of academic achievement, the guiding power of its teachers and administrators, its very mission and its strategic plan – encourages the altruism that leads to strength in St. Mark’s academic pursuits and strength in its philanthropic support.

In that regard Richard Titmuss might nod in assent. So too might Joseph Burnett.

William Bagley is found in the Advancement Office where he is director of planned giving. His background includes service in a number of well-known schools and colleges. Prior to St Mark’s he was with The Trustees of Reservations. An attorney, he is admitted to practice in Massachusetts. In addition to a strong belief in the power of philanthropy, he writes poetry.

Titmuss, Richard, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970). Reprinted by the New Press, ISBN 1-56584-403-3 (reissued with new chapters 1997, John Ashton & Ann Oakley, LSE Books)

[1] Titmuss, Richard, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970). Reprinted by the New Press, ISBN 1-56584-403-3 (reissued with new chapters 1997, John Ashton & Ann Oakley, LSE Book

[2] My slight paraphrase

[3] See: http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/news/article/giving-usa-2014

[4] See: http://foundationcenter.org/getstarted/faqs/html/howmany.html

[5] Note: that rule can vary depending upon the circumstances of the donor and the nature of the gift.

[6] For an interesting pro/con treatment of this particular issue, see: http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324469304578143351470610998

[7] St. Mark’s School Annual Report 2013-2014 Note these figures are final approval by the St. Mark’s Board of Trustees. Note, too, that St. Mark’s endowment spending discipline supports a 5% spending rate on a three year trailing average and typically the 5% so spent is just a portion of total endowment earnings… ensuring that the endowment will grow over time.

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