Years ago, in college, I was sitting in a library carousel distracted from my work by a scaffolding on an adjacent building. Over the course of several hours, the name Johnson, etched into stone over the doorway, was replaced by the name Wien. Wien, I guessed, had given money to the school. Presumably Johnson had too, but maybe his gift had run out or maybe Wien just gave more.
I was reminded of this episode recently when the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center announced that they were paying the family of Avery Fisher $15 million in order to be able to resell naming rights to the famed concert hall, as the organizations move toward a renovation expected to cost half a billion dollars. Now, of course, $15 million is a lot of money (though it’s just $5 million more than Fisher donated back in 1973 to support the building), but it’s a pittance compared to what they’re hoping to bring in. In recent years, according to the New York Times, the New York Public Library and the nearby New York State Theater at Lincoln Center became the beneficiaries of $100 million gifts—and the institutions were renamed in honor of the donors.
Maimonides, that 12th century scholar, offered a guide to charitable giving in his Mishneh Torah. The guide is a ladder, and each rung up inheres increasing levels of virtue. The penultimate rung, as Maimonides would have it, asserts that short of creating a partnership with a person in need or finding him work, a donor should give anonymously so that neither he nor the recipient know from where the money comes. One rung lower—that is, in a slightly less virtuous scenario—the donor knows the recipient but the not the other way around.
Charitable giving—tzedakah—is not the same as philanthropic giving. And yet, Rambam’s ladder has relevance here too. Some of the principles at work in his schema—humility, minimizing the insult of often unjust economic disparity—should apply in the philanthropic world. Would people still give, and in such large amounts, if they weren’t getting credit for it on the side of a highly visible building? Is there a way to ensure the future of our public institutions without cow-towing to the egos of the elite? One can hope, though I worry in such hope one may remain pityingly naive.