The Fourth Dimension of a Great Idea

Monday, June 2, 2014 - 12:26 pm
John Rohe

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.” Albert Einstein

Imagine this: a well-intended, charitably-inclined person of wealth creates a trust in the year 1514. This generous benefactor, deeply committed to an altruistic objective, funds the philanthropic cause without a sunset provision; thus, by default, potentially in perpetuity.

The year 1514, while in the distant past, falls this side of perpetuity by a wide margin. What issues would retain vitality after 500 years? Are any aspects of humanity, or of our relationship to the world, so deeply embedded to survive this test of time?

This topic and others will be explored in the Conference’s concurrent session entitled “Considering a Perpetuity or Spend Down Strategy?” on Tuesday, June 10, at 9:15 a.m.

In general, a foundation’s corpus is either being reduced or it’s not. If there’s a middle ground at all, it’s defined by a lack of clarity between the temporal and the eternal. The foundation is either in spend down mode or it’s ambling against eternity. That’s the default mode. And if it’s leaning toward perpetuity, then it brushes upon the ambiguity of time and the uncertainty of tomorrow.

In exploring this little-discussed (yet ubiquitous) topic about the future, it might be helpful to reflect on the past. The benefactor of a trust in 1514 inhabited a world coming to grips with Columbus’ recent discovery. Land holdings at the time were governed by feudal principles. Church indulgences were sold by the millions. Civic institutions of the 21st century might have been difficult to anticipate.

What criteria could have been deployed in 1514 to contemplate 2014? How might the longevity of a charitable cause have been determined? Hey, no one ever promised philanthropy would be easy. Maybe that’s why Yogi Berra conceded: “I never make predictions, especially about the future.” Yet, some aspects of the human drama are more enduring than others. Certain foibles are eternal. And human compassion is timeless.

Let’s reclaim this aspect of philanthropy from the default mode.

If you care to join the conversation, share your insights, or just listen, please drop by this concurrent session after breakfast on Tuesday.

John F. Rohe is the Vice-President of Philanthropy for Colcom Foundation in Pittsburgh, PA. Before joining the foundation in 2006, he practiced law in northern Michigan for 30 years.

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