USC Price School of Public Policy

Joel Fleishman shares insights on giving with L.A. donors and their families

April 2, 2018

Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy and director of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University, discussed his thoughts on individual giving and institutional philanthropy in the 21st century.  The intimate gathering drew 70 donors and their families and other philanthropic leaders as part of The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy’s Conversations on Philanthropy series.

Drawing from his new book – Putting Wealth to Work: Philanthropy for Today or Investing for Tomorrow? – Fleishman laid out how the landscape of American philanthropy has changed over the last thirty years, shifting from a more organic form of philanthropy toward one that is more disciplined and strategic. At the same time, new ways of giving have emerged, providing philanthropy with new opportunities to scale impact.

Despite these positive trends, Fleishman says he is concerned about one significant shift: the movement toward what is variously called “spend down” or “limited life” philanthropy. Rather than using the traditional model of an endowed private foundation that is structured to pursue its mission in perpetuity, this emerging model spends the wealth a donor has accumulated over a set amount of time, most often while the donors is still alive.

Fleishman says that with few exceptions limited life philanthropy did not exist before 1990. Advocates for this approach are often motivated by the idea that by spending more quickly, they will be able to achieve immediate, instantaneous impact, a philosophy that is sometimes a holdover from their lives in business, where they were often able to quickly accumulate vast sums of wealth.

However, strategically giving away such wealth to solve difficult problems that have mystified government and the nonprofit sector is often much slower. Developing approaches that can have a lasting impact is an iterative process that involves continuous learning and making progress when opportunities arise. As a result, solving entrenched public problems sometimes can’t be done in the lifespan of a single donor or even several generations of donors.

“For all practical purposes, traditional endowed foundations play the role of being the nation’s chief social capital bank,” Fleishman said. “They’re not in it because they want immediate returns. They are involved because they sense a good idea that may have returns over a long period of time.”

This is why Fleishman says he wrote a book that underscores the value of the endowed charitable foundation, one that remains long after a donor has perished. Such foundations can both seed new ideas that government and others can help to scale, and they have a persistent and enduring focus on problems that are unlikely to be resolved in the near or intermediate terms.

This was Fleishman’s third visit to The Center. The first as part of The Center’s Distinguished Speaker Series where he discussed his first book, The Foundation. The second, with co-author Tom Tierney to talk about Give Smart.


The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information:
Please contact Nicholas Williams, Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at nicholas.williams@price.usc.edu or (213) 740-8557.