UPDATED: Charity and Accosting the Public

I’ve been meaning to bring up a letter critical of Alan Shawn Feinstein that Tim Castelli submitted to the Providence Journal not as an exercise in piling on, but because it does raise some interesting questions about charity and the drive to be a public figure:

… “You’re from Rhode Island and you don’t know who I am?” the stranger pressed.
The little annoying voice did start to sound familiar to my wife, but she replied she was sorry she didn’t recognize him. “Well, I am Alan Shawn Feinstein,” the stranger replied.
After asking my children where they attended school, he went into his “good deeds” speech and told my children that “they should help people and do good things.” He should really listen to his own advice.
My 10-year-old daughter answered his questions and was very respectful, as she always is. My 8-year-old son said “hi,” and then wanted nothing more than to continue observing the animals. After Mr. Feinstein’s self-indulging speech, he gave my daughter his “Feinstein Junior Scholar” card and told her it was because she was a “good listener and answered all my questions. But your brother, he’s not listening or paying attention, so he’s not going to get a card.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought the ubiquity of Mr. Feinstein’s face in local schools and those periodic three-generations-of-Feinsteins commercials to be a little… oddly self promotional. But the reality is that, in our current culture, people who are hugely generous will also tend to be a bit eccentric, and while some ethical systems (notably, Christianity) emphasize humble giving, it can’t be denied that public recognition is powerful motivation for charity.
So, yeah, perhaps Mr. Feinstein should be a bit less forward when approaching families enjoying the day together in public, and it might have made a nice cap to his message if he’d — I don’t know — given a card to the boy’s mother with the instructions to get him to do a good deed, something small, to earn it. But as Feinstein told reporter Jennifer Levitz in a 2004 profile (that certainly illustrates his eccentricity): “You can be the nicest guy in the world and there will still be a certain percentage of people who won’t like it for one reason or another.”
Feinstein has a letter in the paper today, in which he raises some good explanations for visible giving:

Over 2 million people every year donate to anti-hunger agencies in response to the Feinstein challenge. I couldn’t have achieved that anonymously. Nor could I anonymously fund the many local charities that depend on me every year for regular monthly grants.
Besides, anonymous giving is not always as good as it sounds. Unfortunately, it is used by some people of means as a way to give less money to charity than expected of them. Ask any fund raiser. Moreover, anonymous giving is not much of a motivator to others. If your friends don’t know the good you do, it can’t motivate them to follow suit.

Rhode Islanders might suggest that these points don’t quite cover the extent of Feinstein’s visibility, but as I said, one should expect philanthropists to be eccentric and to appear to have underlying motives.
One other point, from the letter, that I’d guessed from Mr. Castelli’s (in which he noted that the zoo had told him that they’d ended their official relationship with Feinstein):

As for our association with the Roger Williams Park Zoo, so many free admissions were coming into the zoo when it was on our Jr. Scholar card that the zoo asked to be released from its contract with me.

Little wonder that’s the case, when youngsters can acquire the cards simply by paying attention to a strange rich guy for a few minutes. Perhaps the threshold for a “good deed” — which the cards are meant to reward — should be a bit higher.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Buying your way into heaven can sometimes take a little practice.
On the other hand, there are not so many philanthropists left in RI that recognition might not be assumed.

11 years ago

When he came to our school, he first had his folk singers warm up the crowd of children. When he made his entrance, they broke into “When the Saints Come Marching In” as he worked the room, shaking hands. It was very uncomfortable.

11 years ago

The two equally important benefits of private charity:
A philanthropist gets to choose which recipient most deserves his money.
A recipient gets to choose with which philanthropist he wants to be involved.

11 years ago

Personally, I see this as an example of why you can’t rely on charity to provide public services. Because they rely entirely on the whim of individuals they’re sort of like tiny fiefdoms – a wonderful system as long as the individual philanthropist is a saint. When they’re not, the help just disappears. What you’re left with in an all private charity system is an inconsistent cast of providers – some well meaning, some self-serving – and of course the Church.

11 years ago

Ron – privatize the services and there is no more unfunded public services problem. No kidding that people are reluctant to donate to failing socialized institutions that waste the taxpayer dollars they already receive. Grant private control and people gain an interest in the institutions and room for experimentation. I would never, ever give any money to a public school because they are abhorrent to me. I have gladly contributed to private school fundraisers.

11 years ago

Methinks that Feinstein is doing all this philanthropy because of a guilty conscience from how he built the wealth.
Bilk old people out of millions and then give it back to kids. Whatever helps you to sleep at night.

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