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Posts Tagged ‘philanthropic’

Charitable Nation has, from time to time, showcased various wealthy individuals who are to be admired for their generosity and systematic approach to philanthropy.  (See, especially, Peter Lewis, David Geffen, Warren Buffett, John D. RockefellerChuck Feeney and Lady Gaga)  It can be both interesting and instructive to learn a bit about what makes these folks tick.

Now, the predictable response from the cynics among us is “Yeah, but did you know what a [nasty person] s/he was?”  I can’t and won’t argue that – building and maintaining a fortune is not easy and those who do so tend to have somewhat aggressive personalities.  And, in truth, the philanthropic impulses of some of the “1%” may be suspect, but I prefer to focus on the potential for good that results therefrom and give credit where credit is due.  The philanthropy of the 1% has made a big difference in this world by being impactful and long-lasting.  We can criticize the timing and/or amount of funding or the seemingly parochial views of some of the donors, but we must accept the fact that marketplace of philanthropic impulses is alive and well and made more vibrant by such generosity.

Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a reader directing me to a very interesting website, “The Generous Billionaires Club.” In this one website we can find information about the “Forbes Billionaires List,” “The Giving Pledge,” “Who’s Not Giving An Inheritance,” “Who’s Been Generous” and “Who’s Been Very Generous.”  (Almost makes me want to break out in song: “he’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice…”)

Some interesting factoids:

  • According to the Forbes Billionaires List, 16 of the top 25 billionaires in the world are Americans but NONE of the 26 new tech billionaires are American.
  • The silver spoons in the mouths of the progeny of guys like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg and T. Boone Pickens may be a bit tarnished – in their parents’ estate plans, inheritances are minimized and philanthropy is maximized.  But, it’s not all bad – as Buffett has famously stated, he will give his children “enough money so they would feel they can do anything but not so much that they could do nothing.” In other words, the concept of “no” inheritance is relative.
  • Of the top 10 folks who have given away at least $1B of their net worth over time, 2 of them (James Stower and Herbert Sandler) are no longer billionaires.  Not mentioned in these statistics is Chuck Feeney, the co-founder of Duty Free Shops, who is definitely a former billionaire and whose private foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies will have funneled $9B into charitable works by the time of it self-liquidation in 2016.

Whether you are a casual observer or an unabashed philanthropy geek, you can obviously have a lot of fun with these facts and stats.  In any case, I hope the information contained therein is instructive and inspirational for us all, regardless of the number of zeros that follow the value of our charitable giving

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I am a proud alumnus of Binghamton University, one of four major university centers in the 64 campus State University of New York (SUNY) system.  Binghamton is a young school, founded in 1946 as Triple Cities College, an extension of Syracuse University.  It became part of the SUNY system in 1950 and grew dramatically during the Rockefeller years, attaining its current status as a doctoral granting university center in 1965.  The 1970’s were tough for the University as New York State faced hard economic times and funding suffered accordingly.  Interestingly, the University never wavered – it continued to burnish its reputation as a very selective, high quality, world-class center of learning.  Over time, the financial hard times eased, but the evolution of Binghamton from a “state school” to a “state supported school” continued.  (What’s the difference, you may ask, between a “state” and a “state supported” school?  Essentially, “state supported” means less and less money each year from State sources.)  Regardless, Binghamton is today both the shining star of the SUNY system and an up-and-coming player in the international major leagues of colleges and universities.  Most important, it is a relative bargain, making high quality higher education available to a diverse population of students from all economic backgrounds.  binghamton-university-bearcats-logo

Sounds like a great success story, doesn’t it?  The problem is, because Binghamton is both young and part of a state system, its culture of philanthropy has not yet fully developed.  This issue is front and center on the agendas of both the boards of the Alumni Association and the Binghamton University Foundation – how to build and permanently sustain a culture of philanthropy within the University and alumni communities.  The question is obviously multi-faceted and complex.  Today, I wanted to spend a little time on one seemingly small but very profound step that the University itself has taken to help build that culture right at the true grass roots of the cause, the campus community and the student body.  The Student Philanthropy Committee was established earlier this year as a joint effort between the University and the student body.  The Committee functions under the auspices of the Binghamton Fund, the University’s annual giving program, and its director, Caitlyn Carlson.  Its mission is simple – to build a culture of philanthropy among students by cultivating awareness and engagement.  I recently caught up with committee co-chairs Andrew Loso, Class of 2015 and Dillon Schade, Class of 2016, to talk about what they were trying to accomplish.  It essentially boils down to the two parts of the Committee’s mission, awareness and engagement.

  • Awareness: According to Andrew and Dillon, the students today are more aware of the need for philanthropic support beyond tuition and fees than the members of my generation ever were. The committee has received little negative pushback from students, which is surprising when one considers that many, if not most of them come from modest financial backgrounds where cash is generally in short supply. The committee has gotten the word out en masse through events such as “Tag Day,” where physical assets made possible by donations were tagged throughout campus; manning a table at Spring Fling, a major, campus-wide social event; and giving a speech at the Senior Brunch. And, of course, there is nothing like the personal touch, where members of the committee use their personal connections to get the word out. The message is clear – “Join together – help ME do it!”
  • Engagement: One very simple yet concrete metric that the Committee had to work with was the Senior Challenge. Many schools have this – they encourage graduating seniors to make a modest donation equal in dollar value to their graduation year, i.e. $20.14. Simple, catchy and cheap, right? Unfortunately in fiscal year 2013 only 74 seniors (2.5%) participated. To Andrew and Dillon, this was simply unacceptable. Their goal for this year was to double participation to 150 students, which was still modest, but a step in the right direction. At 177 participants, the goal has been met and exceeded. Next year, they want to double again to 10%. Long term, they want to get to 30%, which experience at other schools has shown is about the upper limit for such a fundraiser.

Charities and nonprofits spend a lot of time and money to stay front and center in the minds of their current, former, and future donors.  It is not easy.  It is not a given.  Even if you assume that people want to give to certain causes, the fact is they have to know about the need and they have to be given an easy and nonthreatening way to contribute whatever combination of time, treasure and talent they can.  Binghamton University or [insert the name of your alma mater] cannot assume that current students see and appreciate the benefit of the education they are receiving.  They cannot assume as a given that alumni will automatically agree that paying it forward is the right thing to do.  Information, communication, and appreciation go a long way to making it all possible.  The students involved in the Student Philanthropy Committee are learning this first hand and at an early age and, in so doing, are helping the University in a small way now that will hopefully blossom over the years as giving becomes a habit – a habit begun in the undergraduate years of the college experience.

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Since the start of this blog, we have focused on the Philanthropic Continuum, that progression from “casual donor,” the person who gives when asked but without much thought, to the “serious or serial philanthropist,” where truly significant gifts and amounts are involved.  The more serious your philanthropy, the more important it is for you to treat it in the same manner that you would treat a business or investment portfolio.  Certainly, there are few Bill Gates out there whose annual giving might exceed the gross national product of a small country, but there are certainly enough philanthropists and protophilanthropists who have either adopted or should adopt a businesslike approach to their giving.  This is important whether you have a private foundation or donor advised fund or just your personal checkbook and it’s not an unreasonable approach; in fact such an approach is already in most responsible people’s DNA.  Heck, I recently spent a half hour researching the purchase of a meat thermometer and stainless steel meat skewers (its barbeque season…), the grand total of which did not top $20, including shipping, so why wouldn’t I approach my charitable giving in the same way – systematically, methodically, and rationally?

Fact:  Giving to charity is really not “giving” at all, it is “investing.”  If you don’t view it this way, then as a donor you are throwing your money away.  One’s charitable giving should be deeply connected to one’s valCaptureues and world view.  The donor should be engaged with the cause and feel a sense of ongoing connection to it.  If s/he achieves that, then the very act of giving to, no, investing in the cause brings the connection to the next level.  Tossing money down a black hole never yields results, but investing in well-conceived and competently executed solutions can be quite rewarding.

Fact:  Investing without a plan is, at best, inefficient.  Without systematic measurement toward a goal, you will never know if you have achieved anything at all. The most effective financial investors are those who are strategic in their approach to investments.  They first define their goals and then fashion a plan to meet them.  Continual measurement of progress toward the goal is implicit in the plan.  Some investors do this on their own while others hire advisors to help them.  Nonstrategic investors, on the other hand, buy a little of this stock and a little of that annuity and maybe chase some yield at their local savings bank, but in the end, the bulk of their growth can be measured more in terms of their additions to principal rather than by any real market rate of return. The same can be said for charitable giving.  Nonstrategic giving will most likely result in giving smaller amounts to a greater number of charities, many of which may not even make it to your values/world view radar screen.  Developing a philanthropic investment or business plan can help prevent that from happening.

Fact:  The business owner without a plan in place to grow his/her business is taken seriously by no one, least of all investors.  Investors will run screaming from an entrepreneur who says “invest in my idea and we will see what happens.”  Again, why would you treat your philanthropy any differently?  Don’t you want to see results?  Don’t you want to be engaged?  Wouldn’t you rather strategically connect with your cause as a player than participate passively as a bystander?

So the message is clear – make a plan!  Begin with your personal passion and identify charities that are worthy of it.  Determine how much you want to give, no, invest and over what period of time.  Consider the tax ramifications pertinent to your situation (and discussed throughout in www.charitable-nation.com) and adjust accordingly.  Develop personal relationships with the charities you support.  Learn more about the cause and become an unpaid ambassador or advocate, helping to raise awareness and ultimately more money.  Volunteer.  Find ways to use your professional skills and personal connections to help make a difference.  (Time, treasure and talent) Stay on top of the charities you support, and don’t be afraid to offer advice or criticism if and when needed but, of course, be realistic in your expectations –the size and reach of the organization and the relative size of your contributions will likely play a role in how effective you can be in an informal advisory role.  To formalize that role and perhaps increase your influence, consider taking a position on the organization’s advisory board or board of directors.

Unlike financial investing or for-profit business ownership, philanthropic investing will not result in a personal, positive rate of return.  It will, however, produce a discernible social return on investment that will be meaningful to you, but only if you take the time to define and measure it.

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Several years ago, a rabbi told me that he always carries coins and single dollar bills so that, if he sees a panhandler in the street, he can easily give a modest amount to him or her.  The idea is, while we do not know the circumstances of such an individual, the fact that s/he is asking should be proof enough that there is a need.  Shame on us if we ignore that need; shame on the beggar is s/he is scamming us.

How do you feel about this?  One-on-one philanthropy is tough because we just don’t know…

But do we ever?  I have done what I refer to as “symbolic” work at a soup kitchen, substituting for the regular staff on a couple of Christmas days.  I saw families and individuals in the facility, none of whom looked like the dirty and bedraggled homeless we see sleeping in doorways in New York City, but none of whom looked particularly prosperous either.  Some of the clients were strapping young men who were seemingly capable of at least manual labor.  I was told that most of them were down-on-their-luck working class poor, for whom the recent Great Recession was devastating.  Did the folks running the soup kitchen bar their entry because they might be scamming the facility?  Of course not.  The fact is, particularly on Christmas Day, no one goes to a soup kitchen if they can afford something better.  Although, the staff goes out of its way to treat all of its clients with dignity and respect.  Eating in a soup kitchen is, at its absolute best, a humbling experience.

Institutional philanthropy, particularly the short-term kind like a soup kitchen, is tough because we just don’t know…

On the weekend after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan region, my wife and I were at our home trying to clean up the mess.  Our neighborhood was badly hit, not to the point of mass destruction and obliteration of buildings, but enough that our houses were not habitable for weeks or months thereafter.  On that Saturday, a group of women from the local PTA made their way through the neighborhood handing out sandwiches and drinks to the residents.  I was overcome with emotion as I sat on my front doorstep eating the sandwich.  How awful – here we were, recipients of a modest yet most generous handout (“hand-up”) when we were always the ones giving to charity.  It was a blow to our pride and ego, but one we accepted with grace.  Those PTA ladies will never know how grateful we were for this small act of kindness, nor the profound effect it had on us.

Personal receipt of charity is tough, particularly when our personal pride goes to war with our sense of need…

I think it comes down to this – the seemingly short term “brother, can you spare a dime?” kind of charitable circumstances we find ourselves in from time to time should neither engage nor disengage the guilt factor we may feel at contributing or not contributing.  Our feelings will depend on our personal constitution, and we should come to grips with that as a matter of personal philosophy.  Sidewalk philanthropy may or may not do it.  We may feel more comfortable when, like the PTA ladies, we respond to a more verifiable crisis.  In the bigger picture, however, it is incumbent on all of us, particularly in this day and age of the fraying social safety net and tendency among politicians to demonize the poor, to take a longer term view.  We need to support those causes that truly help people in need and trust that, over time and situation, such organizations develop adequate controls to do the kind of triage required to stretch their limited resources to help those who need it most.

A great, big “thank you” to bloggers Richard Marker (“Wise Philanthropy”) and Gray Keller who, with differing viewpoints, have blogged about this issue and inspired this post.

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Have you ever heard the term “MOOC”?  “MOOC” is yet another acronym referring to one of today’s seemingly exciting new ideas that you may never have heard of before but may end up seeing as something you can’t live without!  Massive Open Online Courses – depending on whom you speak with about them, they will either become the low cost and highly accessible college classroom of the future or they will die a quick death as students shun them for the traditional “sage on a stage” classroom model.  Personally, because I tend to be more traditional and respond better in face-to-face educational encounters than to web-based technology, I have my doubts that MOOC’s will replace brick and mortar schools.  But, then again, I’m no youngster raised in the iPad society, so what do I know?  Nevertheless, I doubt that tenured academics have to worry just yet – in the 1920’ s the talk was that radio would supplant the classroom and in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the great wasteland of television was thought to be the newest, latest, greatest educational platform, and look at how all that turned out. The ivy’s and not-so-ivy’s are still with us and thriving.   More likely than all or nothing, MOOC’s will serve a purpose for some students, but I doubt they will have as radical an impact as some of their more breathless advocates would have you believe. Any way you slice it, though, the ability to deliver high quality educational content in a low cost (or no cost) way is intriguing, particularly for continuing education.  So, what does all this have to do with philanthropy?

A couple of months ago, I became aware of a MOOC entitled “Giving with Purpose – How to Get The Most Out Of Your Charitable Giving.”  Intrigued by the idea of testing a MOOC by participating in a course of material with which I am already familiar, I enrolled in the course, which began (unfortunately for me, a CPA with a pretty hectic tax practice) on April 2nd.  Undaunted, and pleased at the fact that I could wait until after April 15th before actually beginning my studies, I signed up.  What the heck?  It cost me nothing so I had nothing to lose.  Of course, having no skin in the game makes it particularly easy to ignore the program, a problem that MOOC-providers will have to address.  The program itself?  Overall I would say that it was interesting but not particularly mind-blowing.  Taught by Rebecca Riccio, the director of the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern University, the course employs snippets of lectures (none more than a couple to four or five minutes long), videotaped conversations with some well-known philanthropists, some “review questions” smattered throughout as well as (drumroll, please) a class project involving the analysis of a number of real live charitable organizations.  This analysis culminated in the award of a grant to one of the charities based on the feedback of students using the analytical techniques taught in the class.  “Giving with Purpose “ is sponsored by the Learning by Giving Foundation and Northeastern University, and hosted by edX, one of the big names in the MOOC business.

Now, this particular course was obviously aimed squarely at the next generation of donors and philanthropists and at this point, it was the only MOOC that I could find having anything at all to do with the subject matter.  But, it does not take a world class visionary to see the potential for MOOC’s in the charitable giving world.  The questions of “why” (the soft side analysis of philanthropy) and “how” (the technical tools and techniques) can both be covered quite nicely in such a medium.  In fact, I see MOOC’s as tailor made for providing continuing education in niche areas such as philanthropy.  I plan to keep my eyes open for more opportunities and will let you know what I find.

In the meantime, I will admit, I still have to finish “Giving with Purpose” (maybe this weekend.)  And, if I pass the final exam I will receive a Certificate of Completion which will give me… what?  I’m not really sure, but I suspect that the acquisition of knowledge will be, or should be, reward enough.

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I recently read the book With Charity for All – Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give With-Charity-for-Allwritten by former NPR CEO Ken Stern.  It is an interesting read, at once depressing yet oddly optimistic about what “could be” in the philanthropic world.  To those who are not philanthropy geeks, much of what Stern flags as issues may come as a surprise – a fair number of so-called “charities” act far more like profit making businesses than not-for-profits and if examined closely, may not pass for charities by anyone’s objective measure.  For example, he cites the nation’s many large, well-endowed not-for-profit hospital systems which, in terms of services provided for the poor, are virtually indistinguishable from their for-profit brethren.  For details and statistics supporting this conclusion, I suggest you read the book, but in summary, his points are clear:  “The issues….have substantial economic consequences.  Hospitals are the single largest component of the charitable sector and the value of tax incentives is enormous…..While estimates vary, the value of local, state, and federal tax incentives to nonprofit hospitals almost certainly exceeds $20 billion a year……Since charitable hospitals return only a fraction of that in charitable care, it raises the possibility that the public would be far better served by removing or reducing the subsidy and using the savings to buy better health care from the best and most efficient providers.  And it raises the question:  when a charity stops being charitable, does anyone notice?”

At the other end of the spectrum, Stern is also critical of charities which, unlike health care delivery systems, do not perform critical social functions.  He cites the various college football “bowl” games that have proliferated around the country stating:  “It is no doubt puzzling to most Americans that this string of open-air parties, football games and corporate promotion events have the same charitable designation as Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, of the local food bank.”   It was not only puzzling for me, but a complete surprise!

This is just a small taste.  As I said, the book is frequently depressing, especially for optimists like me who believe that well run charities can truly change the world.  But it is also well written, easy to read, extremely thought provoking and well worth a few hours of your time.  While there are certainly things we as a society can do to better police abuses in the charitable world, there are also many things we can all immediately do to have an impact, and Stern gets prescriptive about this in the final chapter of the book:

  • Resist the old ways.  Think of charitable giving more in terms of investing for social impact.  Ignore overhead and administrative ratios or at least put them in proper perspective.  Focus on the end customer of the charity and whether s/he is being served by that charity.  Base charitable giving not on personal connections and relationships but on objective evidence of effectiveness (admittedly, hard to find).
  • Look for indicia of quality.  Identify top performing organizations not just by looking for four star ratings on Charity Navigator, but by finding those that are crystal clear about their goals and transparent about their research results on their websites.  Look for growth.  Look for charities that worry less about overhead and more about results.
  • Do the work.  “Average Americans spend more time watching television in a single day that they do on their charitable contributions in an entire year.  Like financial investing, social investing takes work: researching charities, reviewing websites and published reports, and sharing information among friends, peers, and other like-minded givers.”
  • Follow the leaders.  Signalers in the financial marketplace exist; they exist in the philanthropic marketplace as well.  People swear by the Oracle of Omaha (Warren Buffett) as the messiah of investing, so why not Bill and Melinda Gates as the bellwethers of philanthropy? Or organizations like GiveWell (a research organization), New Profit (venture philanthropy), and the Robin Hood Foundation, all of which are committed to careful research and analysis.
  • Pool donations.  This is an interesting concept – the idea of a philanthropic “mutual fund.” Pool the funds and let the professionals do the heavy lifting.  While options for this retail approach are extremely limited right now, it may be an idea whose time has come.

For those who are serious about philanthropy, it is advisable to think of the private foundation or donor advised fund not as a charitable pocketbook but as an investment portfolio that needs to be tended on a regular basis.  We chastise politicians who think that the solution to most problems is to throw money at them, yet many of us approach our own philanthropy in just that manner.  Perhaps the family foundation of the future will build its own infrastructure for more effective assessment and monitoring of the charitable projects in which they invest.  Perhaps the philanthropist of the future will become more coldly calculating in his/her approach, looking for solutions instead of stopgap measures.  And why not?  We do it in business all the time, relying on creative destruction to take us to the next economic level.  Perhaps what the charitable world needs right about now is its own little bit of creative destruction.

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Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the Fourth Annual Family Office Conference sponsored by the New York State Society of CPA’s (NYSSCPA).  While the entire concept of a family office is, at best, amorphous, I think it is safe to say that the one common bond they all share is money – and money in all its forms.  Money means investment, which implies tax, which impacts spending, which necessitates tracking and budgeting, which causes family feuds, which arise from sinister motives, which then inspire more pure motives which, of course, leads to philanthropy. (You knew we would get there sooner or later!) So it was fitting at the conference for us to consider some aspect of philanthropy during lunchtime as we munched on our catered sandwiches and salads.  We chose to frame the discussion by first viewing a TED talk posted last March:  Dan Pallotta’s “The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong.”  I was very excited when we chose this foundational video because I had actually blogged about it back in March.  It was both interesting and provocative and I encourage you to watch it if you can.  Back then I blogged about not confusing frugality with morality.  While still a good topic, I want to focus today on something else Dan said but didn’t really catch my ear at that time:

Businessweek did a survey, looked at the compensation packages for MBAs 10 years out of business school, and the median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38, was $400,000.  Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a $5 million+ medical charity in the U.S. was $232,000 and for a hunger charity, $84,000.  Now, there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.

Some people say, “Well, that’s just because those MBA types are greedy.”  Not necessarily.  They might be smart.  It’s cheaper for that person to donate $100,000 every year to the hunger charity, save $50,000 on their taxes, so still be roughly $270,000 a year ahead of the game, now be called a philanthropist because they donated $100,000 to charity, probably sit on the board of the hunger charity, indeed, probably supervise the poor SOB who decided to become the CEO of the hunger charity, and have a lifetime of this kind of power and influence and popular praise still ahead of them. 

Whoa!  Tough stuff!  Those greedy MBA’s!  All kidding aside, this observation does makes you think, but not about the money per se. It makes you think about values, philanthropic and otherwise.

I think it is safe to say that none of us should presume to have answers about values for anyone other than, perhaps, ourselves.  Is earning a high salary at (some would say) a socially questionable job right or wrong?  Then again, who is to say that a particular job is socially questionable?  Is making substantial contributions to charity a “good thing” or is it “penance” for working in that socially questionable job?  Take, as an example, John D. Rockefeller who, in his day, was one of the most vilified of the robber barron set, but also a most accomplished philanthropist.  (University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others).   Did Rockefeller’s philanthropic accomplishments arise from noble intentions or did they represent more of a justification of the rough and tumble way he earned his money?

IMHO – I applaud the Rockefeller philanthropic results but am troubled by the source of the funds.  But frankly, that is neither here nor there.  In reality, this is not one but two questions, the answers to which have, or should have, nothing to do with each other.  Whether one’s vocation is good, honorable, honest, and socially desirable is the first question.  Barring illegal activity, this decision is determinable only by the individual in question based on a whole host of personal considerations.  The second question regarding philanthropy is also quite opaque – we might agree with the statement that “philanthropy is good” but really, how do we define philanthropy?  I have argued repeatedly that the “marketplace of philanthropic impulses” will drive charitable capital into areas that the market deems worthy but that such results are neither “good” nor “bad” – they just “are”.  That being the case, we know that a lot of money ends up in religious organizations.  Good? Bad?  Whom do these organizations really help – and how?  What about cultural institutions like the symphony or opera?  Is it worthwhile to support them when millions of people the world over are starving?  What about higher education?  Personally, I argue for the support of public higher education, but does that mean that the rich Ivy League universities are not worthy?  The list goes on and on.

Bottom line – this is a question of values – your values – how you make your money, how you spend it, and yes, the institution and causes you choose to support.  The imperative from my vantage point is that all of us should constantly reflect on our own values, let them thoughtfully evolve as we challenge our personal ways of thinking, and promote those causes we believe in by putting our money where our mouths are.

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