Peter St. Onge

Chris McLeod told Charlotte’s biggest donors they’re 'miserly.' It was not well-received

Giving expert Chris McLoed said big donors are failing arts organizations in Charlotte
Giving expert Chris McLoed said big donors are failing arts organizations in Charlotte

Chris McLeod sort of knew this was coming.

A few weeks back, she wrote an op-ed for the Observer telling Charlotte’s big arts donors that they’re not giving enough. She called their approach to donations “miserly,” and she said that because of their example, the arts in Charlotte was on a “death march.”

It was not subtle.

Neither was the response.

McLeod has been slapped down, gently but firmly, by some of Charlotte’s big philanthropic names. Foundation for the Carolinas CEO Michael Marsicano responded to McLeod with his own Observer op-ed, which is a little like getting called to the principal’s office over the loudspeaker.

McLeod expected some of this, but not all. She’s still defiant, but also regretful. We’ll get to all that.

First, some background: McLeod is the founder of Giving Matters, a Charlotte company that advises individuals and companies about donations. She’s also an advocate for the arts, and like many, she’s frustrated to see so many worthy organizations starved for dollars.

That’s what prompted her op-ed. She knew her words would raise eyebrows – or even better, furrow them. But donors needed their shoulders shaken, she thought.

On May 18, the morning the op-ed appeared in print, she woke up to a fuller-than-usual inbox. Some messages were angry, including the one that called her an “arrogant twit.” But it wasn’t all negative, she says. “I got calls saying, ‘Finally, someone’s putting this out there.’”

A lot of people, however, were steamed. Some tell me that anger over the op-ed has run hot in the philanthropic community. McLeod has felt it, too. Last week, she got a call from a non-profit executive who’d been working to secure a large gift from an individual donor. That donor, however, had noticed the non-profit’s name on McLeod’s web site. If it wasn’t removed, he suggested, the gift might be in jeopardy.

McLeod was angry about that one. She says it shows how non-profits are reduced to the role of beggars, which was one of the points of her op-ed.

You should know that McLeod is far from alone in thinking that. And the larger topic she broached – how big donors can make a bigger difference – is not really new. It’s been talked about in philanthropic circles across the country, including here.

But these days, with so many voices participating in so many conversations, there’s a temptation sometimes to make your voice stand out. In the opinion business, we call that being “provocative,” which has a thoughtful kind of sound to it.

Except sometimes, the provocation shoves the message aside.

McLeod understands this, too. At least she does now. She says she read her op-ed again when the responses started arriving. “The feeling was like, wow, I could have used a few less personal pronouns,” she says. “I didn’t quite understand the condescension and contempt that was baked into it.

“I regret that.”

By the way, she also took that non-profit’s name off her web site, although she thought about refusing on principle. In the end she didn’t want to jeopardize the big donor’s gift.

She also says she hasn’t lost any clients – “at least not yet” – and that she’ll write again on giving, because people need to think about it.

She’s right. There are some good questions to ask about how philanthropy is structured in Charlotte. We can talk, for example, about how workplace programs have made giving more dutiful than joyful for some. We can talk about how all of us – including the wealthiest – can give better.

The idea, Chris McLeod says, was to have a conversation about all of that. Instead, the conversation ended up being about her.

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com

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