Be Generous When Others Are Fearful: The Amalgamated Compassion Fund Class of 2017

Warren Buffett made a lot of money investing based on the adage “Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy.” He famously stayed away from Internet companies during the dot-com bubble and advocated buying stocks during the financial crisis, for example. With the stock market at record highs and with American institutions under many threats, I contributed more to and granted more money from the Amalgamated Compassion Fund in 2017 than in any year before.

The Amalgamated Compassion Fund is my donor-advised fund. I contribute money and shares of stock to it, Fidelity Investments invests it as I choose, and later I make grants from it to nonprofit organizations. There are some limitations — I can’t grant money to political organizations or to for-profit journalists, for example — but I’ve been satisfied with the way it’s helped me fund organizations that promote civil rights, human services, and education.

The following is a partial list of organizations I’ve supported this year from the Amalgamated Compassion Fund, from my own personal funds, and with matching funds from the Tableau Foundation, which is run by my employer.

Civil rights have come under many threats this year with the several attempts at a Muslim-focused travel ban and attacks on the free press and the open Internet. That’s why I’ve granted funds to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) multiple times during the year, to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project via the Tableau Foundation, and to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which makes Signal, an excellent open-source application for end-to-end encrypted messaging.

In the world of social services, I’ve made grants to Northwest Harvest which runs food banks in Washington, to Food Lifeline which is also focused on feeding the hungry in Western Washington, to the Downtown Emergency Service Center which provides help to Seattle’s large homeless population, to Capitol Hill Housing which supports affordable housing in and around my neighborhood, and to Feet First which advocates for pedestrians in Seattle.

To support good journalism at a national and local level respectively, I’ve granted funds to ProPublica and to KUOW. I also continue to support some for-profit news outlets as well.

After years of donating to Carnegie Mellon University with the goal of offsetting the cost of education and broadening the school’s impact across socioeconomic groups, I decided this year to instead grant funds to organizations that have committed to help underserved and poor students as a first priority. The first class of educational grantees includes, Black Girls Code, TAF (a Washington-based STEM organization), and the Lowell Elementary School PTA. Lowell is located in my neighborhood and about 20% of its students are homeless, creating unique and heartbreaking challenges that the PTA is trying to address as best it can. I received several great recommendations from friends that didn’t make my shortlist this year, but I intend to take a fresh look at grantees in this category next year.

I write these annual updates not to gloat about what a virtuous guy I am but to suggest that everyone who can do so support nonprofit organizations. In tech, charity is too often treated as a purely results-oriented endeavor, similar to crowdfunding projects like on Kickstarter. Like an unsuccessful Kickstarter project does, many charities spend millions of dollars on problems like hunger and homelessness but don’t deliver an optimal solution to them. Social activism is meant to chip away at challenging problems but it may take years to see any desirable change — and there’s a risk of backsliding after a change happens. This year the Amalgamated Compassion Fund stepped up its grants, and perhaps some good will come from the organizations, but I’m not putting any of them on a deadline. Their missions matter more than their short-term actions do.