I have been a close observer of the American Right wing for over half a century. I have seen organizations come and go, but more often, I have seen organizations come, peak, go into maintenance mode, and then bump along, with money coming in from ever-older donors and especially from the last wills and testaments of former donors.
Legacy donations have always been important to every nonprofit organization. The most obvious legacy donations in the history of Western civilization were the deathbed donations of rich men, mostly landowners, who finally decided that it was time to buy a little favor with God. So, they called in a priest, and they transferred land either to the church or to one of the monastic orders of the church. The church built up an enormous legacy of land throughout the Middle Ages. Those legacies came into the church for 1,000 years. Then, Renaissance states started to confiscate these lands. The practice went on from Henry VIII in the early 16th century until the triumph of the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century.
INFLUENCE FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE . . . MAYBE
Legacy donations are made by people who have decided that they want to extend their ideas beyond the grave. They believe that their children have received sufficient capital from them, so that it will not harm the children when some of the legacy money is handed over to some nonprofit organization. For very rich people, this is a good idea. Unless a person’s heir has the same kind of vision and moneymaking ability that his entrepreneurial parent possessed, the legacy is likely to be frittered away. It is better to promote one’s ideas beyond the grave than the self-destructive personal habits of people who happen to be your genetic heirs.
The problem with legacy donations is simple: the organization that receives the donations is only marginally less moribund than the person who is 6 feet under. The organization maintains a shell, in a zombie-like fashion, but in fact has passed over the great divide between life and death decades earlier. It maintains the same letterhead. It may maintain the same headquarters. It may still publish its monthly newsletter. But the founder is gone. His vision is gone. His innovative efforts have become bureaucratic. The new managers may or may not sing the old songs, but they certainly do not write any new songs or offer creative new arrangements for the old songs. They draw their salaries, and they go through the motions of extending the founder’s vision, but in fact the organization is no longer competitive in the world of ideas.
It is understandable how this happens. Most nonprofit organizations do not survive the first five years. Of those that survive the first five years, very few of them survive the next 30 years. If the innovator was a young man who launched the organization, by the time he is close to retirement age, if the organization even exists, he now has what old men love to have: secure income in retirement. Instead of taking a low-paying pension, he simply stays on. The organization turns into what in effect is an old age retirement home with 30 staff people and one resident. He still draws a paycheck, as if he were contributing anything of value to the organization, other than serving as a figurehead. His presence no doubt is comforting to his aging peers, who will then leave a legacy in their wills. He functions in much the same way as a greeter functions, or at least functioned a generation ago, at a Las Vegas gambling casino. He is the functional equivalent of Joe Lewis.
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