Peter Buffett's thought-provoking op-ed about philanthropy's sometimes negative impact on society can be illustrated by a look at the foundation founded by Richard Mellon Scaife's sister.
July 29, 2013

Cordelia Scaife May, Richard Mellon Scaife's sister, was a lonely, miserable person who had more money than she could spend and less friends and human interaction than most. She died wealthy, paranoid and with a large family foundation to receive her millions. She loved animals, but really disliked humans, especially humans who came to this country from other nations.

For Scaife May, immigration was that problem that she felt her philanthropic efforts could fix better than government. Via the LA Times:

Her millions didn't bring her happiness. Like her mother and other family members, she battled alcoholism. She named her home Cold Comfort, a wry reference to "Cold Comfort Farm," a popular 1932 comic novel about a woman "of every art and grace save that of earning her own living."

And when she died, she left more than $400 million — nearly half her fortune — to the Colcom Foundation, named for the same book. The foundation's mission is to promote "sustainable" immigration that won't overwhelm the environment or the economy, according to John Rohe, Colcom's vice president for philanthropy.

Let me translate that for you. Colcom Foundation is one of the primary funding sources for "Californians for Population Stabilization," (CAPS) the backhanded anti-immigration group based in Santa Barbara. The group has sneaky rhetoric -- too sneaky to be from a Koch-funded group -- but the underlying message is xenophobic and ugly. In 2011, Talking Points Memo took note of this ad they ran during the 2011 GOP primary debate at the Reagan Library, because the message not only opposes illegal immigration, but also legal immigration.

Scaife May represents a weird sort of philanthopist. Her motives weren't driven by pure conservative ideology. In fact, she counted Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, among her few friends. For her, the problem centered around how immigration and population growth would impact the environment and particularly the animals and birds inhabiting it. Many of us might actually be in agreement with her on some level, but since her death the Colcom Foundation has merged those environmental concerns with the far more conservative and xenophobic attitudes of her brother, Richard Mellon Scaife.

Before May died, Colcom gave more than $200,000 to Samuel Francis, a conservative columnist who called for halting immigration and opposed "all efforts to mix the races of mankind."

Colcom also gave $5 million over the last decade to Californians for Population Stabilization, a nonprofit group based in Santa Barbara that seeks to restrict immigration. The chairwoman, Marilyn DeYoung, sparked controversy in March when she warned that children of immigrants can cause problems.

"A baby can join a gang and then commit a crime; a baby can drop out of school and become a criminal; a baby grows up," she said in a videotaped interview with Cuentame, a Latino advocacy group in Culver City. Authorities don't check "whether they're communist or whether they're drug smugglers or had felonies or had been in prison or anything."

Colcom Foundation has given millions in grants to FAIR, an anti-immigration group founded by John Tanton whose philosophical approach and rhetoric is so harsh they have been classified as a hate group by the SPLC.

Peter Buffett wrote a stirring editorial where he called for a different approach to philanthropy because the current model has devolved into corporate paradigms where human suffering falls on some quantified ROI table. It stirred up some controversy among the wealthy and privileged. One of our readers responded to it with a passionate and poetic response. I can't help thinking that his indictment of Howard Husock as "a pompous man speaking from the prison cell of privileged thoughts" was the same affliction that caused a lonely woman to devote $400 million dollars to a cause that locks people out rather than inviting them in.

It is the same affliction which lets Bill Gates and the DeVos family and the Walton family pretend they give a damn about poor kids getting educated. Yes, they'd love to pull out the kids who show promise and leave the rest behind, but if ever there was a demonstration of the abject failure of placing ROI ratios on philanthropic causes, this would be one.

In that same vein, the Koch brothers give away hundreds of millions to 'philanthropies', but none of the causes they fund could actually be found to alleviate suffering anywhere, least of all here.

This is why charities aren't the answer, no matter how many times conservatives try to say they are. They create problems while leaving the real ones smoldering underneath in the mud underneath the sea of humanity. They don't solve human problems; they solve corporate problems. Buffett is right: Philanthropies should look at what they're trying to "fix" and ask whether a better approach might be to think outside the box. Perhaps it's time to consider changes to how we treat "charitable causes" from a tax standpoint and also philosophically.

Slapping the word "foundation" after someone's name doesn't necessarily suggest generosity, or empathy. It is an estate plan, but not always the right pathway to real change. That has to come from the only place with the authority to bring it: Government.

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