Is Permanence Obsolete?

It used to be that if you named a building or purchased a pew, your name would be remembered in perpetuity.  Your children’s children would walk through that building, or sit in that pew.  Every day, or every week, your descendants would be inspired by your accomplishments and would, perhaps, be inspired to follow your example.  Over the past century community foundations have grown quickly by creating endowment funds that distribute their earnings, and the donor’s name, forever.  They do so without naming buildings, or rooms, or pews, at all.  While those endowments are not the bricks and mortar of a building they inspire the community all the same.

However, there is a murmur in the meeting rooms of community foundations today.  There is a sense of discomfort like that brought on by a sudden change in barometric pressure.  Is something headed our way?  Was Andy Warhol right?  Is permanence obsolete?

In  1968, Andy Warhol famously said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With the proliferation of reality shows, fragmentation of popular culture, and instant success of YouTube, many social commentators have suggested that he was right, although his quote might be updated to 10 minutes from 15.  I used to think that Warhol’s insight was simply a statistical artifact.  We know more famous people from last year than from a hundred years ago.  It just seems like fame is more fleeting because more of the famous people we know are the recently famous.  Now I see it differently.  To be famous forever now takes a different approach.

Andy Warhol’s quote has two parts.  Everyone focuses on the 15 minutes part.  Filling those fifteen minute times slots, every hour, on the hour means there are lots of famous folks.  Newsmakers themselves generate this glut of names.  Nearly every nonprofit has “naming opportunities;” from the entire building to the basement mop closet.  With each gift there is the obligate press release.  As a result there is simply too much noise, too many people are being honored, too much news.  What once was shouted from the rooftops (literally, as when the frieze below the cornice is etched with donor names or the donor’s iconography) is now shouted from all communication platforms.  Because of the numbers of notables nobody gets more than the 15 minutes allocated to them but each of those 15 minute time slots gets filled up.  Having your name in the news is not leaving a legacy.  Creating a legacy takes more than making a splash.

The second part of the Warhol quote is the “world-famous” part.  We live in a much larger world than ever before.  Our families fragment.  Children move away.  The vast majority of donors who give today through community foundations create donor-advised funds.  These funds convert to general endowment funds at the death of the donor’s immediate children.  One contributor to a donor-advised fund said to me:

“It is quite likely that my grandkids will not know this community.  They will not know why I give here.  It is best that whoever runs the community foundation, when the time comes, decide where is the greatest need here in my community.”  

We move so easily today that few of us live in the communities of our grandparents.  Naming a building or a park does not mean your children’s children’s children will see the results of your generosity.  Those great-grandchildren may be living in Kansas by that time…or on the Jovian moon Io.

Our cities and towns are cluttered with monuments.  Our children live away.  What’s a legacy-minded donor to do?  The murmur in the meeting rooms of community foundations is that virtual memorials are gaining over those marked in marble.  Not “virtual” in the new sense of electronic, rather “virtual” in the sense of not literally being etched in stone but being honored as if it were.  The explosive increase in donor-advised funds is a result of a desire to create a legacy that  lasts more than 15 minutes and is not weighed down by masonry.  It is not that permanence is obsolete, but rather the obsolescence of the thinking that instant fame means legacy. 

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