By Alexis Treu
The topic was giving. At the first-ever White House Conference on Philanthropy in the United States, the heavyweights of the charity world gathered to hobnob with the president and First Lady, promote their organizations and take a closer look at how to get into America's more open wallets.
Dubbed "Gifts to the Future," the three-hour seminar-like discussion spotlighted leaders and new techniques in philanthropy. Some 200 guests in the East Room (and countless more watching via satellite broadcasts) listened to panelists who included Steve Case, chairman and CEO of America Online, Bill White, CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and Dorothy Johnson, president of the Council of Michigan Foundations.
Giving in the U.S. rose 10 percent last year over 1997 to an estimated $174.5 billion. The bulk of charitable donations, nearly 85 percent, continue to come from individuals. President Clinton told the conferees that charitable giving is an American tradition, but "the face of this tradition is changing. Philanthropy is, like our country, now more diverse as new groups seize and share opportunity in the new economy."
The conference revolved around the idea that philanthropy is becoming younger and more hip. "Tear up the old play book," said Peter Hart, founder of the Peter D. Hart Research Associates. "Those [old] rules are gone." He stressed that the ideals of giving have changed. Charity is no longer "about changing the world, it's about changing ... [the] neighborhoods," he said.
"E-philanthropy" was touted as the new form of charity, offering more security and privacy for givers, informed choice without hidden coercion, full disclosure by organizations (including their tax information), and answers to questions online.
But that might be getting ahead of cyber-reality. A pop star-studded United Nations-endorsed concert, NetAid (held 13 days before the White House conference) drew 2.3 million web hits. But online donations were an anemic $1 million.
Though many ideas were tossed about the White House, some participants questioned what the outcome of the conference would ultimately be. Roxanne Spillet, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, called the conference "an opportunity to think about what's possible."