Jason Franklin
One of philanthropy's most intriguing and impactful new leaders

Giving as an Act of Redemption

July 3rd, 2012

Two recent magazine articles have left me thinking about the times when giving manifests as the pursuit of redemption. They’ve led me to ask friends how we can tell when generosity is “pure” vs. when its driven by a desire for forgiveness for past misdeed or “sins.” And in the latter case, when can generosity lead to forgiveness – socially, morally, spiritually?  Can redemption be obtained for every misdeed? How do you decide if an act of generosity merit forgiveness and a fresh start? Do we judge gifts of time differently than gifts of money in their “redemptive value”?

Last month in Fast Company Magazine, there was a fabulous profile of Homeboy Industries, focused on its amazing founder Father Gregory Boyle and on Bruce Karatz, the millionaire former-CEO of the massive residential builder KB Home. To dramatically shorten this fascinating article (read it, really), 3 weeks after being convicted of 4 felonies related to a scandal with backdating stock options, Karatz began volunteering with Homeboy Industries. Launched in 1992, by 2012 Homeboy had become the country’s largest gang intervention program but it almost closed due to financial problems. Karatz joined Boyle and the Homeboy team as a full-time volunteer – helping raise money, improve Homeboy’s financial management and launch new revenue generating programs. His service and funding have helped thousands, but do they constitute an act worthy of redemption?

Yesterday, I read a similar article in Inc. Magazine about Catherin Rohr that brought this question back up. In this case, Rohr launched the innovative and highly successful Prison Entrepreneurship Program to teach Houston inmates basic business skills. But after 5 years of growth, success, and accolades everything came crashing down in 2009 after it was revealed that she’d had “inappropriate relationships with four graduates of her prison program.” She was barred from ever entering the Texas prison system again and forced to resign from PEP. Now several years later, she’s starting anew with Defy Ventures, a new NYC nonprofit she has founded to offer similar entrepreneur training (and a business plan competition complete with $100K prize) for former inmates.

I found myself warming to her story more quickly than Karatz’s and then stopped myself. Why did I have an easier time “forgiving” Catherine Rohr than Bruce Karatz? I realized it had to do with my judgment of each of them individually, of their respective misdeeds and of their acts of redemption. It also called to mind the moral judgments I hear so often about different high profile philanthropists. Some people praise their generosity; others dismiss their giving in the face of criticism of how they obtained the money to give away in the first place or what they are giving to.

When Rockefeller and Carnegie established their foundations in the early 20th century, some praised them as the first “mega donors” of modern America, holding to an ideal of charity that was deserving of collect admiration. Others dismissed their charity as insufficient acts of redemption when stacked against the labor, business and environmental practices of Standard Oil and US Steel. These balancing acts of judgment continue today, from our reactions to the Giving Pledge to honors bestowed on local major donors.

All of these reflections have left me with more questions rather than any solid answers so far. Is generosity always worthy of praise? Is it sometimes an act of redemption? If it is, when is forgiveness merited? When, if ever, can generosity today outweigh negative acts in the past (or even present)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – you can comment below or email me at [hidden email]


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