What Should We Learn From a Dying Philanthropist?

We’ve been covering the prolific giving of famed TV producer Sam Simon lately, and specifically how his philanthropy is escalating since his terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s certainly a moving story, but what can philanthropy as a whole learn from a wealthy donor who knows his time is short? 

There are a few aspects of Simon’s story that are pretty fascinating. Mainly, it’s that Simon—who is co-creator of the The Simpsons, but played a big role in Taxi, Cheers and others—is in the rare position of knowing at a relatively young age about how long he has left, as he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in 2012. But Simpsons episodes keep coming, and so do the checks, and Simon has more money than he can spend. He has two ex-wives, no heirs, and his loved ones are financially secure. 

It’s a sad story for sure, but part of the way he’s decided to spend his waning years is by aggressively giving his money away, as much as he can while he’s alive. That mostly comes across in his support for PETA, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Save the Children, and his own nonprofit that rescues dogs and trains them to help veterans and the disabled. He’s taken up the hobby of buying up captive animals from places like zoos and circuses. And he donated a $2 million ship to Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling fleet. 

Related: Terminally Ill Simpsons Co-Creator is Saving Animals. By Buying Them

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why Simon’s giving is so compelling. In part, it’s probably because he’s a character—a comedian, poker player, boxing manager, art collector. But he’s also literally living like it could be his last day on Earth, and has a small fortune at his disposal. I suspect that the tough hand life recently dealt him has influenced his approach to giving. (This is somewhat speculative, and based on a few interviews he’s given on the subject, since we haven’t been able to talk with him.)

Let me be clear that I’m not saying Sam Simon is the world’s best philanthropist, or that the wealthy should give all their money to PETA. I mean, he’s buying a bunch of animals, like bears. He owns a bunch of bears, which is a little nutty.

Simon is also not unique in deciding to spend down. But we've never seen a major donor try to unload a fortune quite this fast. So I do think some aspects of how Simon is conducting his affairs in his last years can teach the foundations and donors of the world a few things about the whole point of philanthropy:

1. His Giving is Bold

Recently, I was reading some criticism of philanthropy by Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, formerly of Atlantic Philanthropies and Open Society. LaMarche has been pretty vocal about his problems with big foundations, and one of his complaints is that, while they have basically nothing to lose and nobody to answer to, large foundations are unbelievably timid. 

One argument in defense of the substantial tax break for philanthropy is that it channels wealth toward goals that government and corporations wouldn’t or couldn’t pursue (in exchange for keeping it out of public coffers). And yet, so often we see staid foundations working so hard to maintain their own longevity and reputations—keeping money in place. Foundations get practically zero bad publicity, and yet they are so cautious, giving to the same nonprofits, entering new fields only after years of internal analysis, then producing 500-page manifestos accompanied by two inaugural grants to groups they already fund every year. At their worst, philanthropists look an awful lot like corporations and governments.

Simon doesn’t have time for that. He truly doesn’t seem to care what people think about him, or the fallout from his giving. Furthermore, his objective is the exact opposite of protecting an endowment. He’s said before that he gives, not because he thinks it’s the proper thing, but because he gets pleasure from seeing the results, watching the direct impact.

He’s bought a ship to ram whaling vessels in Japan. He pulled a sting with PETA on a chinchilla ranch that has made him the target of a lawsuit. And I doubt he cares. He bought an injured race horse from two prominent trainers using a frontman. In fact, he’s said he intentionally does NOT give to environmental groups because their progress is too middling. He doesn’t have all day and he wants to ambush whaling ships, dammit. 

This is a sense of urgency and a desire to create fireworks that philanthropy could use more of. 

2. It’s Not About Him

OK, to be fair, he has a charity with his name. And I just said his giving is driven by his own enjoyment. And the whaling ship bears his name, as does a PETA headquarters building. 

But in a broader sense, Simon’s philanthropy is not about inserting himself into the field of his interest. We often see donors with the attitude that they can run the world better, and they can whip these nonprofits into shape, just like a business. Foundations so often want to be called “partners” and want to be “at the table” with their grantees, guiding their goals and deliverables with their wisdom. Gates and its top-down influence on school reform is the obvious example of this. 

Again, LaMarche writes about how when he started working for Open Society, he immediately noticed the power dynamic involved in holding the purse strings. As a result of this power, he found himself “a great deal smarter, wiser, funnier, and probably handsomer than I had been only months before.” I think the power of the purse leads to this “we know best” attitude we so often see in foundations. Before long, they become entrenched institutions within the realms where they’re trying to make a difference.

For Simon, who is not a businessman or a consultant or anything like that, and who also has a short lease on life, that power dynamic is weak, and actually kind of reversed. He picks his champs and gives them what they need, then sits back and watches. He once said of PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, “I say yes to everything she asks me.” 

Yes, engagement is important, but more of the Simon school of write a check and get the hell out of the way could serve nonprofits and foundations well.

3. It’s a Mix of Head and Heart

On one hand, philanthropy is criticized for being too driven by emotion and the whims of donors. So the pendulum swung toward “effective altruism,” and the dictate that donors give to causes that can demonstrate the most tangible good. But the critics ask, "What about all the other causes?" Yes, giving to hospitals in developing countries will go the farthest, but what about an advocate for the homeless in San Francisco? Unworthy?

I noted in an earlier post that Simon’s giving is not unlike that of effective altruism proponent Jim Greenbaum, in that they both recognize that their funds can cause immediate good by saving animals. And while they both cite a desire for concrete results, it’s not all that bloodless in either case. It’s doubtful that Simon would give the way he does if it weren’t for his highly emotional love of animals. There’s clearly a combination of human passion for an issue, while also doing the math. 

Related: Sam Simon: Grants for Animal Welfare

Simon’s philanthropy isn’t perfect. It’s not very transparent, for one thing. He's happy to talk to the occasional magazine, but to be honest, we don’t know the full extent of his giving. He’s even said that he doesn’t know how much he's given. Imagine if this approach were adopted by someone with a fortune like Gates. That’s kind of terrifying. 

Also, there’s not much happening on systemic improvements (that we know of). Buying up abused animals is great for those individual animals, but what about policy to protect animals in the future? Another quirky philanthropist comes to mind. Robert W. Wilson was the wealthy, heirless libertarian who committed suicide at 87, assuring in his note that he lived a great life and did all he wanted to do. He had a similar attitude toward philanthropy, sending big lump sums to groups he considered effective. But he also did a lot of matching grants, meaning he’d give $100 million to a group, but would also help them to build their grassroots base. 

Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack in all this, but for me, something that often gets lost is that philanthropy is meant to make the world better by giving money away. When foundations become so settled in and concerned with their own longevity, it cuts against that spirit. 

A dying philanthropist shows us what it looks like when that variable is removed from the equation. At the very least, it’s exciting.