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Karl Zinsmeister

The Freedom and Philanthropy that Set America Apart

Karl Zinsmeister shares some of the incredible history of philanthropy in America, and why our passion for generosity and freedom defines our country.

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Philanthropy in America is a patchwork quilt of stories about human drama and profound connection.

It's the arts, medicine, and education; it's local and national; it's enormous foundations and small individual donors. When combined, Americans' devotion to philanthropy is one of the things that sets the United States apart from other countries.

Few people understand charitable giving in the U.S. better than Karl Zinsmeister. His career has led him to be a researcher, journalist, author, Domestic Policy Advisor to a president, and vice president of the Philanthropy Roundtable.

In 2016 he authored the definitive reference book on philanthropy in America, chronicling how the country has used private donations to meet public needs from inventing the radar industry during war to creating the New York Public Library.

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Really nice to be with you, Frank.

FRANK BLAKE: What a treat. So look, first question, you've done so many different things in your life; writing, business, government, what's the story around your deciding to focus on philanthropy?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Yeah well, my mom used to say I can't hold a job so… it's not accidental that I ended up in philanthropy because that's kind of the same story with philanthropy, Frank, as you know is that philanthropy is not one thing, it's about a million things. It touches the arts, it touches medicine, it touches education, there are local aspects to it, there are national aspects to it, just this huge varied undertaking that's really a perfect match for me. I kind of decided early on in my career that there were lots of people that were smarter than me, but one of the things I could bring to the world was the ability to connect dots across disciplines.

You know one of the really characteristics of a modern society is people are so specialized. I literally had an orthopedic surgeon the other day who was a specialist in one kind of shoulder. It's just everyone's got their little niche and that's great in terms of really becoming a leader in your area, but sometimes you have to connect knowledge across disciplines. So that's what I've tried to do through most of my career, I know enough about economics and about culture, and about religion, and about medicine and so forth to be dangerous, and then I'm able to sort of see how these fields relate to each other. And so that was really an ideal preparation for philanthropy.

FRANK BLAKE: So I love a quote, I think I'm getting this quote right from you, where you say one of the things you do is you try to truly think originally drawing on ancient wisdom and with that in mind, what conventional idea about philanthropy do we have that is most off-base?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Oh boy, that's a long list Frank. But I think the first one I would say is there's this notion, especially today, this is a more recent mistake, but there's a myth in the air today that philanthropy is the Billionaire Boys Club. You know, it's Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and these super bigfoot donors. Well, guess what folks, those large donors are actually a minor portion of the total flow of funds in this country. There's a bunch of ways you can look at that, one of the simplest ways is foundations.

Everyone talks about the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, well all the foundations in this country put together, only give out about fifteen percent, one five, fifteen percent of our charity.

FRANK BLAKE: Wow, I wouldn't have thought that.

KARL ZINSMEISTER: The rest comes from individuals. And it's kind of a crowd sourcing phenomenon, Frank. You know, because we don't see these small gifts, you don't notice them. You obviously notice the ten million dollar gifts, you don't notice the hundred dollar gifts except there are millions and millions and millions of them. About three quarters, more than three quarters of all Americans participate in philanthropy in a given year. So do the math, that's like 270 million people and they give an average of about 3,000 bucks each. That's a massive, massive pile of money that's coming really from the grassroots up.

FRANK BLAKE: Was this something that you uncovered as you were doing your book, The Almanac on American Philanthropy? Or did you kind of know this going into it?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: No, I will confess, I was dumber than dirt. I was just as surprised by this as anybody. I'd absorbed a lot of the conventional wisdom and I did know that what we call civil society is a huge part of America. This is something I hope that we could talk about a little bit later, Frank, is how unusual this instinct to give away money voluntarily is. It's a really distinctively American thing. So I knew that and I knew that we solve problems through private giving much more than the Europeans or the Asians do. But I did not fully understand how much of a grassroots phenomenon it is and how important the small givers have been traditionally.

FRANK BLAKE: So let's get into that now, because there's also a quote in your book which I think is a great quote, it goes something to the effect of most people think Americans are generous because we're rich, but actually we're rich because we're generous. Would you expand on that?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Sure. There are just a huge number of cultural problems, social problems, economic problems in this country that get fixed before they even rise to the level of public attention, and that's the dream. Obviously if something becomes so egregious that it's just going to weigh down our whole society, then you've got to have a government mobilization, you've got to have a bill, you've got to have a law. But in this country, an awful lot of stuff gets taken care of before it ever accumulates in that way. And it happens at a local level usually. By local, I mean anything from your small town up to your state, even the nation, but done through private operators.

So that has really been one of the secrets to our success, is that we've been able to fix things organically without waiting for some knight in shining armor to ride down the road and fix things for us. Again, Alexis de Tocqueville one of the famous observers of American society back in 1830s, still read today as kind of a classic understander of what makes America distinctive. And when he came to this country, Frank, he was just astonished that everyday people just gathered together and took care of things. And he said, he had some really distinctive quotes, he says the things in England would be fixed by a Lord, or which in France might be taken care of by the National Church, in the U.S., people just do these things themselves. If the town needs a school, they build a school. If there's some problem with the roads, they get together and they fix the roads.

Now obviously, that's evolved over time, but that impulse is still very much in place and it's been one of the really secrets to the success of our society.

FRANK BLAKE: Do you think as you look over time, is our philanthropic bandwidth increasing or decreasing? Are we able to do more or is it getting more constrained?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: That's a really interesting question. The first thing that strikes you when you look at the ratio of how much of our disposable income do we give away every year? It's been remarkably stable. I mean that has really not changed much since like World War II era, we basically consistently no matter how rich we get, no matter whether there's downturns or upturns, no matter politics or changes in culture, our charitable impulse has really been steady. So that's the good news.

The somewhat worrisome news is that only very recently, I mean literally in the last ten years, something has begin to change. There have been, for the first time really in our modern history, declines in the fraction of the population that give away money and some changes in the composition. One of the unquestionable drivers of America being such a charitable society is that we are also the most religious industrial society in the world. That's demonstrable. And that drives an awful lot of our giving, and that's changing as you know, there's big changes in religious participation taking place in this country. And it's beginning to be reflected in slight declines in charitable giving, and that worries me because as I say, this has been kind of our really distinctive national element. And if we suddenly start to look much more like the Europeans or the Asians on this front, I think other aspects of our society we've always been proud of could also evaporate.

FRANK BLAKE: So that sort of links to another broader question because I didn't realize that that's worrying. One of the things you point out is that altogether, our philanthropic efforts are, I think you say, almost a trillion dollars or roughly a trillion dollars. Why do you think it's been studied so little?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: You know that is such a good question. So I got into this, Frank, somewhat like you as a kind of later in life career. I worked as a journalist, as you pointed out in my introduction, for a lot of years. My most recent job prior to getting into philanthropy was in the White House, and you know I thought I understood American society pretty well, and when I got into this and realized that donors didn't just do the famous things like help cure polio and help homeless people, they do all that, but they also do things like it was a donor who invented the American radar industry during World War II and helped win World War II, it was donors who saved all of our great founding father's houses, not the National Park Service. It was donors who created the most incredible medical research infrastructure in this country that has really allowed us to become the world leaders in the Nobel Prize winning collectors on the medical front.

So I had no idea how essential this industry was, and at first, my reaction was, I was kind of angry. What's going on? Why isn't this story not being told in schools? Why is it not present in journalism? Why is the presentation in philanthropy in popular debates often so cramped and so crabbed? It's all about rich people and they're mean or they are just vain and they want their name on a building, and some of those things are true. But there was no kind of broader picture that really captured this incredibly fertile creative part of American society.

And then Frank, after I kind of got over that somebody's rigging the game impulse, I thought well, that's our opening. That's where I'm going to go. And that's why I wrote this Almanac of American Philanthropy. It's 1,342 pages long so there's no shortage of cool evidence, and incredible stories, and great human drama. Honestly, it should have been written by somebody wiser and smarter and more informed than me. I did it just because nobody else had. And I thought it was a national story that really needed to be understood.

FRANK BLAKE: It is amazing, I learned researching for this podcast, I learned from you, which I never knew before, the New York Public Library is run charitably. Central Park in New York is run charitably, not by the city. I was shocked. And there are probably stories like that all over.

KARL ZINSMEISTER: You're absolutely right Frank, those are two great examples. And we're not talking here just historically, that they evolved as charities, they are run today as charities, they are not agencies of government, people don't know that. And the reason that those are both are such beloved institutions is because they are so effective, they do wonderful things. And it's not an accident that they're effective and that they are privately run. The Public Library, for instance, is not just a library as you probably know, they have huge numbers of English language classes; they do a lot of childhood literacy training, they have all kinds of interesting artistic programs, they are just a centerpiece of life in the city. And lord knows what would New York City be without Central Park?

If you're raising kids in Manhattan, it's just an absolute godsend to have that beautiful open space, a place you can take children, a place you can jog, a place you can kind of capture your breath again. And I'm old enough to remember when Central Park was falling apart. It was on its last legs, it was a great place to go get mugged and not much else in the 1980s. And that was rescued by private donors. It's kind of interesting, it was a really unusual odd couple, it was a very conservative donor and a very liberal donor. George Soros and Richard Gilder who got together and said, this is crazy, this is one of the crown jewels of New York City and the city has run it into the ground, we got to fix this.

So they created a private conservancy and collected donations from lots of generous people and the conservancy still has the contract to run Central Park. They make all the management decisions, they do all the maintenance, they hire the people that plant the plants and fix things. So it's just a marvelous success story in a place where government completely catastrophically failed.

FRANK BLAKE: Karl, does it worry you one of the common, I don't know if it's a complaint so much, maybe it's criticism of philanthropic efforts is that very few of them ever reach scale? So for all of this trillion dollars in straight donations and time gifted, there are relatively few philanthropic efforts that get to much scale. Do you see that as a failing, a strength, or just is something that's hard to fix?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: That's interesting. There is kind of natural human impulse, and I'm subject to it as well as anybody else, it says you know we want our efforts to fix homelessness to be uniform, to be the same everywhere so they're fair, so they're predictable; but it's only when you start thinking about that, Frank, you realize actually that's a terrible idea. Particularly when you're talking about sort of humane work, when you're talking about work that touches human beings in intimate ways, so things like education or a lot of social services, or fighting addictions, those kinds of really tough social problems. One size does not fit all. It really is not a great idea to have a single formula because nobody's average. Everybody is different in different ways and the beauty of philanthropy is that it varies.

So for instance, there are anti addiction programs, that are built on kind of religious principles, and faith as a way of overcoming this demon. There are addiction programs that are super medicalized and highly empirical that have been created by philanthropy. There are addiction programs that are family based and use the power of the rest of your kin to kind of keep you on the straight and narrow. And that sort of variegation is really the reason that philanthropy is often so effective. So I think it is important for us to kind of resist this inclination to say oh it should be standardized and to remind ourselves that would we like to be standardized? Do we want all schools that our children attend to be identical or do we want to have an art school for one of our kids maybe and a military school for the other kid, because that's just the way they're wired?

And it's hard to do that through government, I mean you've been in government, I've been in government and you know that there's this sense that you've got to have equal opportunity, you've got to have identical provision for every region and every person. And there's some things that that's the right way to go. Social security payments should be uniform but a lot of social services actually should not be uniform, they should be individualized to the recipient. And philanthropy is brilliant at doing that.

FRANK BLAKE: One of the most interesting phrases in one of your books, it was so arresting just reading it, because I thought that is so on the mark, you talk about consumers of government versus producers of government and the role of philanthropy in that. Would you explain that a bit?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Now we're getting away from the kind of nitty gritty practical stuff that philanthropy accomplishes which are huge and again, we can talk about that all day. Medicine, education, here, there, and everywhere. And we're getting now instead into the kind of the philosophical benefits of philanthropy and I'm so glad you raised them, Frank, because they are huge and maybe even more important in the long run than the kind of day-to-day problem solving because this whole idea of democracy. Democracies are frail, as you know, America's the oldest democracy in the world, and one of relatively few democracies that have lasted for more than a couple of generations. And there are reasons for that. One of the reasons is because we have lots of institutions in this country that train people to kind of take responsibility for their community.

And again, going back to Tocqueville, when he said if a tree falls across the road in France, you wait for someone from the state to come cut it up and move it away or you go ask the local lord could he send some of his minions to take care of this? And in the U.S., there's always been this tradition that you and your neighbors just go fix it. You get out your chainsaw and you clear the road. So that is really a training bed for philanthropy, excuse me, for democracy writ large.

Democracy is not a natural thing, necessarily, you have to learn how to collaborate and cooperate and compromise with your neighbors and the process of doing this through philanthropy was a really useful way of us learning how to do this in the political realm as well.

FRANK BLAKE: That just so underscores the importance of this topic, do you worry that philanthropy becomes politicized?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: I really do, Frank. Not only politicized, but just a lot of modern society is moving in an impersonal direction. There is this tendency to kind of dial 9-1-1. When things are broke, dial 9-1-1. We're moving to this kind of traditional European position that there's an expert class who fixes our problems for us. And boy would I hate for that to really become the predominant view because what's always been distinctive about us again is that we take responsibility for our own communities. I'm doing a lot of traveling around the U.S. these days and looking at successful cities and all of these cities have traditionally had a civic kind of public spirited group of people who just take responsibility. So Cleveland had a bunch of business guys, and religious and civic leaders, who just said this is our town, and when there's a problem with race, or there's a problem with homelessness, or there's crummy schools; we get together and we work on them and we fix them.

And that's changing I think a little bit in a global economy. There's less of that rootedness and less of that taking responsibility for kind of making the garden that's at your elbow green. And instead, people think of themselves as kind of global citizens. And there's part of that that's nice, but a lot of things get lost in the shuffle if you go too far in that direction. And people again start thinking that it's somebody else's problem to sort of repair the social damage that they see around them. And that's something I think we all have to guard against.

FRANK BLAKE: So you're currently with Anonymous Philanthropy, what is that about? What are you doing there?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: That is an advisory, so we basically get asked by people who have been successful in America and there's still lots of them, who want to give away money, and there are still lots of them. Again, this is a really weird distinctively American thing that when you get rich, one of the first things you start to think about is how can I give away money? I promise you they do not traditionally do that in Europe or in Asia, or in other places. But successful Americans do, that's one of the first things they ask themselves.
And philanthropy is a thing unto itself, Frank. It's hard, it's different from business, it's different than a lot of other social sectors, and there's trade craft and there's understanding of history, and there's a lot of things that many donors want help with. So that's what we do. So just to give you an example, right now I am in South Carolina where a very wealthy and very generous gentleman owns a house and a business down here. And honestly Frank, I think it started when he just began talking to some of the low wage employees at his business and realizing that things weren't always rosy back home, and that bothered him and he wanted to help. So he has asked us to design a program that can help really energize a rural county and a half, let's say, region of South Carolina, down in the southern part of that state. So I'm taking this deadly seriously, I mean this is peoples' lives we're talking about, we're not going to kind of come in and play the puppet game and pull peoples' strings or dabble for a while and then disappear. I think it's very important to do these kinds of things responsibly.

But bless his heart, this is a guy who really wants to help in an area that has been jumped over by a lot of American prosperity, for really just for generations, this is a place that did not have good schools, that did not have a great economy. And people are hurting in a lot of ways. So we're going to work on education and on medical care and on family reinforcement and other things and see if we can really make a difference here.

FRANK BLAKE: And as you roll up your sleeves and get into it, do you get more encouraged by the ability to achieve the objectives or go oh my gosh, this is just so vast even with massive resources, it's too much of a struggle?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: That's partly a temperamental question. As you clearly introduced me, a lot of my career, I was doing the play by play announcing of the baseball game. I was standing up above at a height and looking down and sort of describing what was happening, so that's what I did in some of my journalism when I wrote these books. Even when I was in government to some extent, when I was making a policy, I was kind of working from my knowledge of prior experience and kind of abstracting from that, generalizing from that, theorizing from that, and trying to come up with broad policies.

What I'm doing now is I'm playing baseball, I'm right down on the field and it's radically different and I'm really enjoying it. It's tremendously fascinating. And if you have a kind of messiah complex and you think you're just going to swoop in and change everybody's lives, you could get disappointed and you get hurt, and other people could get hurt. So it's very important to approach this with some humility and realize that everyone has good things and bad things in their lives and what you really want to do is extend opportunities. You want to make it easier for people to design the life that they want and with that, Frank, I almost feel like we can't fail. We might never get this particular geography to paradise, but I know we're going to make things much much better for thousands of people, real life people. And that's really thrilling.

There's a quote in The Almanac of American Philanthropy where I quote Mother Teresa and she says, I never think about crowds, I think about individuals. And you know some people, they like to do wholesale, they like to think about crowds, and they like to work on a mass scale, and I do that sometimes. I get the satisfaction of that, the big scale, but there's also just something unbeatably wonderful about working with individuals, working in one county, working in a particular town. Building relationships, making friends, seeing those children change as you work with them. So I think they're both valid impulses and lots of philanthropists draw on each of them. And I'm just kind of in one phase of my life right now.

FRANK BLAKE: What has been the biggest positive surprise for you from your work in South Carolina?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: I'd have to say first of all that people who don't live here would care. It's really, again not to be taken for granted, that we are a country where, I mean it isn't just this one donor who got the ball rolling, we're now looking at involving other donors who live in places like Colorado and Montana, and they get real excited when they hear that there's a chance for them to really lift up another fellow American and change the direction of their life in a place that's 800 miles away. I just think that's beautiful. As you know, I was an embedded reporter in Iraq, and the Arabic world is just such a radical contrast.

I remember specifically, I went out with an Army civil engineer who thought he was delivering great news to a local sheik, they're kind of the tribal leaders in Iraq, and he said we're going to put in a new underground sewer here and clean up this awful flowing sewer you have in the street and it's going right down by your house here, and then it's going to go another mile that way and take a turn, and he stops the officer, and he's like nope, no no no, you need to stop the sewer right here at my house. Those people down there, they're not our people. I don't really care about them and that will slow everything down. And the officer tried to say well, you're all Iraqis, you're all in this together, don't you want everybody to thrive? Nope, that's a different group over there.

And thank god, we are in general, not a country that thinks that way. We tend to get satisfaction from knowing that each other are thriving. And so I think that would have to be satisfaction number one for me, Frank, is that we have people who are really willing to extend themselves, not just financially but as volunteers and all kinds of other ways to try and help their fellow citizens thrive.

FRANK BLAKE: And do you see this as a chapter that ends at a particular time or an ongoing effort, a life's effort?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Well this is just one project among several, probably many that I will do through this group's advisory. But this is a big one, I mean this is pretty cool because it's soup to nuts. It's a comprehensive community development effort, it's going to include a school, it's going to include preschool, it's already, we're just about to open a medical clinic. We're going to have nurses visiting the homes of at-risk moms, so there's family elements to it, there's job training. We're setting up a little transportation system because there's no way to get to the jobs that are a county and a half away that pay well, but are a difficult commute. So in that sense, this is not just another project for me, it's something special.

I'll tell you one of our real, kind of secondary goals here, obviously the first thing we want to do is help the tens of thousands of people that surround this project, that live right here where I am sitting right now. But the secondary goal is to kind of create a template that other people can copy, and this is what philanthropists do all the time. You know they work on two levels, they want to help a particular geography but they also want to prove a principle that can then be transferred to other places.

So we're working in a rural county where a lot of people say you can't have a really high quality charter school in a rural county, you can't set up a cool transportation system in a county that small and that isolated, you can't really do cutting edge family reinforcement in a place that doesn't have major hospitals and doesn't have all kinds of experts. We're going to try to prove all those guys wrong and show that it can be done in red America, if you will, in rural America. Which really kind of got skipped over by the last generation of prosperity.

We had an economic boom in this country that was great if you live in the city over the last generation. If you lived outside of cities, it hasn't been such a pretty generation. And what we're going to try to do is create a model that can be transferred to not just South Carolina, but to Missouri and to Louisiana and to rural Minnesota and you name it, and try to again, climb another mountain, solve another problem in this country with some initiative and some inventiveness.

FRANK BLAKE: That is phenomenal. So personal question, who has done a crazy good turn for you? Who's someone in your life that you say, boy this person might not even know it, but they changed the direction of my life?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Well you know, I don't usually do this, but I'm going to be honest with you, I was a knucklehead about religion until I was in my thirties. I just was all wrapped up in myself and really focused inward and all the problems that a selfish person can make, and then I met a guy who really helped change my life. I mean I was beginning to be receptive, but he really helped transform me. He was a second-career pastor. His first career was as an insurance agent, and he ran an effective insurance agency, and then he just decided you know what, I want to do something different, I want to do something else, I feel a calling, a real mission to devote myself to other people. And that's a kind of philanthropic impulse, if you will, and he became a pastor. I think he freaked his wife and his kids out. His kids were still in high school, his wife thought this was not going to be a very good way to make a living, which it isn't, but he did it. He went to a seminary and he got ordained, and he took over a little country church where I met him.

He was such an inspiration to me, Frank, and he really helped me just kind of stop staring at my own navel and to look outward. That's the beauty of the centerpiece of the Christian message, is that you are not what the sun revolves around. You have to think about other people, you have to think about the interest of your neighbors, you have to think about the least and the lost. So that was kind of a real life change for me, and I think no question is one of the reasons I'm in philanthropy and the reason I find it so satisfying and it's such a wonderful bridge.

This part of South Carolina where I'm sitting, Frank, is a majority African American, and again, African Americans have not really had a fair shake in life, if I may say. They've had some tough goes of it. There are lots of Hispanic immigrants down here who are working in the golf courses and the hotels, and the leisure industry that's growing up in South Carolina. And there are just all kinds of people here of different backgrounds and one of the things that really unifies us is religion.

I was in a Pentecostal church for literally a six hour service a few weekends ago and totally comfortable. I was the only white person in the church. But they welcomed me and I welcomed them because we had a common language. So it doesn't have to be religion, there are lots of ways I think to build a bridge with your fellow citizens but when you finally get off the island and you're not totally alone and you figure out a way to connect to other human beings, whether it's through religion, or through philanthropy, or through some other impulse, is really a beautiful satisfaction. At least it has been for me in this later part of my career.

FRANK BLAKE: Oh one of the things we do on this podcast, I'll ask guests what are their three favorite books and then we do giveaways for the people who listen and if you were to say here are the three books that you'd like to give away to a group of listeners, what would those three books be?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Oh you're ambushing me here, I'm a reader. I'm such dinosaur, such a fossil, I have thousands of books and I just love them all. But fair enough, let me just kind of wing it here, and I'll throw a couple at you. One is easy, I've been talking about Alexis de Tocqueville and he wrote this brilliant book called Democracy In America. And even though it's going to be 200 years old here in another decade, it's still incredibly timely kind of snapshot of what a cool country we have, what an unusual country, so that would be one for me.

Another one would be Friedrich Hayek, he wrote lots of books, but The Road To Serfdom might be the one best known and, Frank, he was basically warning people that kind of little bit of what I talked about earlier. He said if you really want somebody else to take care of you and make sure you're secure and make sure you never fall down and skin your knees, and that your life is totally safe, you're going to ultimately have a tyrant standing over you. And he pointed out that freedom and independence are kind of related to each other and it's very relevant to this idea of philanthropy. One of the reasons, honestly, one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about philanthropy and so eager to help bolster it is because if we don't fix problems in that voluntary organic small-town grassroots up method, then we're probably going to have somebody say oh, let's fix it with a new Washington D.C. program.

And that's not only going to be expensive, that's going to be much less humane. That's going to have laws and sanctions, and income tax, and cops, and threats, and coercion and all that stuff connected to it; because that's how government works, it just is. And so I love the idea of doing this voluntarily as a more humanitarian solution and Hayek is one of the people who helped me understand that.

And there's this kind of fun book, anything by G.K. Chesterton, again that's where I'm showing my dinosaur qualities. But he was a turn of a century, I mean previous century, he was like an early 1900s British journalist and just hilarious, kind of a really, beer drinking man of the people with a big belly and very eccentric, ran around in cloaks and canes and just an odd and interesting human being but he created a really sophisticated kind of philosophy. He mixed the things, I think a lot of Americans want to mix, is that he said we need to be good to each other, we need to be good neighbors, we need to take care of each other, we need to care about each other, but he also said we need to do that as individuals, not through law or not through the state, because that's cold, that's impersonal, that's not a great way to solve problems.

So you can see all three books I've selfishly thrown out as kind of reinforcing the philosophy that you and I have been talking about here for the last half hour but take it or leave it. Those are three.

FRANK BLAKE: Those are terrific, those are fantastic books. A couple of other just personal questions. So I was fascinated you wrote a recipe book and the recipe book is from the Finger Lakes region in New York. I lived in upstate New York for a while. Finger Lakes is just beautiful. And I spent some time in Syracuse, I wouldn't have thought of that as a place where great culinary, for its wonderful food, other than maybe salt potatoes. So what's your favorite recipe from that book?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: I wouldn't have thought of it either. Here's what's going on, first of all, that's my little pay on to local patriotism. My family are seventh generation residents of that area, and I was never able to finally make a living in upstate New York, so I'm not there right now. Although I would love to be. But I go back as much as I can and our problem, Frank, as you know if you've lived there, is upstate New York is just like the Midwest, it's like Ohio. I mean I can say that because my mom was a dairy farmer's daughter from Columbus, Ohio; and that's really what a lot of the culture and economy is like in upstate New York. And we unfortunately have to live under the rules of New York City, which dominates our state.

So you get this kind of mismatch between the Midwestern culture of the area and the very much New York City based kind of politics and taxes and regulations that we have to live under. And as a result, it's just kind of suffocated. Upstate New York is a very sad place right now economically. But as in any place, there are exceptions, and there's just so much human talent and human capital upstate, it bursts through. And one of the fun little things that happened, just in the last generation, is some European immigrants basically figured out how to bring cold weather grapes to upstate New York and start making some really great wines. New York wine was not considered great for a long time, but in the last generation, some high end vendors figured out how to make some really fun stuff.

And as you know, any place you get good wine, you start to get good food, and where you get good food, then you get interesting farming taking place, people start gathering mushrooms and growing heirloom vegetables and raising exotic breeds of sheep and things. So that's kind of the train of events that's taking place right now in parts of upstate New York. And I found it a blast, it's fun for the quality of life, but it's also become an important part of the economy. So I thought my little bit that I could do would be to kind of shine a spotlight on this and show that something cool is going on and try to help the tourist industry discover that part. So that's the genesis of the book.

It actually was a blast to do for another reason which is that my daughter did most of the cooking, my son did all of the photography, and as you point out, there's beautiful vistas, so there's some really lovely photos in the book. And I was the leftover who did the writing.

FRANK BLAKE: All right, still need to give your favorite recipe. We might need a giveaway on your recipe book.

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Oh man, you are a tough host, Frank, you're nailing me here. Well, there's a really fun and different chili recipe that I like, maybe that's not a bad place to start. But there's a lot of good food, there's a lot of good food in the book.

FRANK BLAKE: Among your other amazing accomplishments, you're also a collegiate rowing champion. I've never rowed, but it's always seemed to me, incredibly difficult sport, what were your learnings from that?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Oh, you're a sweetheart to ask me that, thank you. That was about 120 years ago by the way but yeah I mean, here's the real story there. So I was a small town boy who went off to Yale, and just kind of a fish out of water. Frank, I didn't know what a prep school was when I stepped onto the Yale campus. I didn't know that 18 year old kids drove BMW convertibles. I didn't know what the whole drug scene was all about. It was a revelation to me and not especially in a positive way. I kind of felt like the regular Americans, the sort of middle Americans that I grew up with and that I loved were often looked down upon. And I was immature, three quarters of it was me, but one quarter of it was them. There's a lot of elitism and a lot of smugness, I think, in some of these institutions.

And we're seeing that not only in Ivy League colleges, but in parts of journalism today, parts of government, there are lots of places where I'm a little disturbed that people have forgotten that average Americans are not idiots. Anyway, that's how I stepped onto the Yale campus, I couldn't stand the place to be honest. I'm not a quitter, I wasn't going to drop out, I wasn't going to quit, but I really wasn't liking the culture I stepped into. So I had been recruited to play football at Yale, and I played my freshman year and realized my body was not really built for D1 football and at that point, there was a brand new coach on campus who was really a pioneer. He said rowing has traditionally been like prep school sport and if you didn't do it at Exeter or some other place, you're never going to do it.

Well he said the heck with that, I'm going to recruit big bodies and I'll teach them how to row and I'll end up with much better teams, and that kind of democratizing impulse was brand new at that point and considered kind of radical, but Vespoli, bless his heart, he stole a bunch of us off the football team and the basketball team at Yale, and he taught us how to row. And in the first year we were horrible. But by the end of the year, these wide body rowers who he recruited, actually we beat everybody. So I was national champion times in college just kind of by dumb luck I stepped into this really Renaissance.

And honestly Frank, I pretty much majored in rowing in a lot of ways. That was kind of how I survived this what I found to be a very hostile culture is I threw myself into sports, and you're absolutely right, rowing is an intense sport. We rowed in the morning, we rowed at night. We tested our heart beat when we woke up, our diets were controlled, it's intense. It's not a sport for people that just like to have fun or dabble, it's a lot like swimming or cross country skiing, it's aerobically intense, but it was a perfect match for me. I'm a little bit whacked out and little bit obsessive about whatever I do and so I just thank god.

I actually wrote an article about this recently, a lot of people, I think particularly college professors and people in the education industry, they look down on their nose at sports. They think it's just a distraction, or it's a place for frat boys to blow off energy or bad things happen, or it's just people who want to make money. And there is some of that obviously, there's been some corruption in college sports, but the Olympic sports, the sports where you don't make money, but you just do it for the joy of sporting at least are super educational. Honest to goodness, I learn more about myself and about the world and what it takes to be excellent through rowing than I did in any of my classes at Yale.

So to me, my sports experience was extraordinarily educational. I'm really grateful for it. I don't think I would have survived Yale without it and I don't like any modern policies that try to take that away from students today. I think it's harsh, it's cruel, and it particularly would freeze out a lot of young males who just aren't ready to sit quietly with their hands folded in the classroom but you give them a sporting activity to blow off some steam and they can become good citizens.

FRANK BLAKE: Wow, wow, that's such a great answer. So for everyone who's listening who wants to know more about you, more about what you're doing, what's the best place for them to go?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Well first of all, they need to see a therapist about that. Actually, the topics I work on, I would welcome them. I would love to have anybody who's interested in the things we've talked about today, Frank, look at the Almanac of American Philanthropy, it's available on Amazon. I do have a website where I have lots of samples of stuff I've done over the years which is Karl with a K, Zinsmeister dot com. And you're welcome to go there, and I'm always interested in talking to interesting people or people who want to practice philanthropy from the donor side, so we would welcome any connections there. But I'm not really relevant or important to this story, there's so much beautiful human drama in philanthropy. That's the thing I learned, Frank, you know. Philanthropy is this awful word, first of all, multi syllable Greek word, and then it kind of just feels like something old people do when they're about to retire. And it just feels dusty and it feels boring, and it's anything but.

When I got into this, I started reading the stories of these donors. It's like the Iliad and The Odyssey, there's so much romance and so much kind of human flesh and blood in the great donor stories so that's I think a place for people to really get hooked and dig in. And I tried to put a lot of that in the Almanac and then a lot of my other magazine articles and so forth. And I'd love for somebody to become the next great chronicler of philanthropy, picking up and going a lot further than I did.

FRANK BLAKE: So one last question and we've got to give away the Almanac along with the three books that you referenced, and it is a terrific book, and you do a lot of biographies of both people others would have heard of and frankly people I've never heard of. Is there one person that you'd say when I read his or hers, or when I was developing his or her story, this connected with me?

KARL ZINSMEISTER: Oh yeah, this is so hard for me to pick my fave, well, I included in the book what I call the philanthropy hall of fame.

FRANK BLAKE: Right, right.

KARL ZINSMEISTER: I'm trying to remember, I think there's 62 of them, Frank, but there's basically, these are some of the really exemplary fascinating donors. And like you say, a lot of them, you won't have heard of. Yeah, you've heard of Rockefeller and Ford, but there's a lot in there people won't know. And they did things that people don't realize. Like people might have heard the name George Eastman, they know he founded Kodak, what they don't realize is that he almost single handedly created MIT as a great technical university. And MIT would not be where it is today if he hadn't intervened.

They might have heard of Sears Roebuck for instance, but they don't know that there was a guy that basically turned Sears Roebuck when it was about to fail into the of his day. And that he used the money he made in the process of getting rich through Sears Roebuck, to do some astonishing things including building schools for black kids who had no options in the early parts of the 1900s. And this guy, who's name was Julius Rosenwald, by the time he died, Frank, get this, twenty seven percent of all of the black children in America, we're going to a school that Julius Rosenwald had built. Think about that as a legacy.

But maybe if they were just going to read one though, I think the one I might steer people toward the most is a woman named Oseola McCarty, and she was a Mississippi woman. Frank, it's just an incredible story, and it gets back to the point we made earlier about how this is a mass phenomenon, this is a grassroots phenomenon, it's not just a Billionaire Boys Club. Oseola McCarty was a laundry woman in Mississippi, and I don't mean she put things into the washing machine, I mean she had a scrub board and boiling pots over wood fire, and 100 feet of clothesline, that's literally how this woman made her living, until she retired in the 1980s. So she was paid in coins and crumpled up dollar bills probably, not a lot of income coming in, but bless her heart, when this woman retired in her 80s, she announced that she had saved every penny she could throughout her life and she had about 300,000 dollars in the bank, and she was going to give almost all of it to the University of Mississippi, for scholarships for girls who hadn't had her kinds of life and wanted to have bigger opportunities.

And when she announced this, the whole city of Hattiesburg, Mississippi just cried I think. And they said, oh my gosh, that is such a beautiful thing for someone who really never had anything in her whole life, to ultimately make her final act giving what little she does have to others. So the Hattiesburg residents more or less, quadrupled or quintupled her gift. And as a result, there's a lovely little endowment now at the University of Mississippi that creates these Oseola McCarty scholars every year. I think there's five or six of them given out every year. So that's a really lovely example of this kind of bottom up, everybody can do it, small people matter too version of American philanthropy.

FRANK BLAKE: That is amazing. Karl, this has been just fantastic, I cannot thank you enough. What great work you're doing and God bless you. Thank you so much.


While at the Philanthropy Roundtable, part of Karl's mission was connecting the dots in charitable giving and drawing attention to the stories behind this practice, which has been so integral to the fabric of our country.

Now, he is using his broad knowledge to advise major donors who want to write their own histories - designing and implementing effective charitable projects to improve issues close to their hearts.

He's the perfect guest for a podcast devoted to sharing crazy good turns.

In this show, you will hear:

  • How the essential industry of American philanthropy is tied to our definition of independence, and why it differs from giving in other countries
  • What Karl feels is threatening our distinctive national story
  • The benefits of having many definitions and practices of philanthropy
  • Karl's favorite story of charitable giving by a Mississippi woman, and the legacy she left behind

Enter to Win Karl's Book for FREE

Karl's book, the Almanac of American Philanthropy, is an essential read for anyone interested in our country's tradition of generosity. We're giving away 50 copies of his book, which is chock full of stories of people who have done Crazy Good Turns for others. One lucky grand prize winner will also get three other books Karl says help explain why America's charitable giving is unique among countries - PLUS a Kindle e-reader to enjoy them on.

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