From the Prairies to Picasso

As a successful London art dealer, Frederick Mulder was used to negotiating on prices.  So he was not particularly surprised to find a $15,000 difference between what a valued client was willing to pay for a Munch woodcut and what he believed the work was worth. At first he wasn’t sure how to proceed. Then it occurred to Fred that he could ask the client if he would be prepared to give the difference away with him by making a donation to an environmental organization he knew they both cared about.  His client was at first surprised by the idea but soon agreed.  He even offered to give more because he would get tax relief for the gift.  They both found this a satisfying way of resolving the stalemate – but for Fred it was also confirmation of how enjoyable he found it to give away money in a quirky way.  It gave him a taste for thinking outside the funding box.

Fred wasn’t born to wealth. He grew up in a remote community on the Canadian prairies 35 miles from a paved road and 150 miles from the nearest city. He never knew his father, who was killed in World War II. When he was nine his mother married a grain farmer who made a meager living from insufficient acreage. Their house had no indoor plumbing and it was an isolated life. They went to the city every two years and their social life revolved around his stepfather’s evangelical church.

At the age of 7, Fred became a businessman. He developed creative ways of making an income by selling Christmas cards and novelties, going door to door in his small town. Tithing was a central tenet of the church, and Fred donated 10% of the profits from his childhood ‘businesses’ and grew up feeling that giving was an essential part of being a Christian. He also assumed that giving was something that people did together, as his family did in church.

Fred was a successful student and after university in Canada and in the USA  He went abroad for the first time for postgraduate studies in philosophy at Oxford.  He and his girlfriend soon made a trip to Paris together and he was amazed to find several original Picasso prints at prices that were affordable.  Using most of his student grant he purchased seven Picasso lithographs, all of the same subject, and on his return to London he sold six of them to London dealers at a profit.  He found this rather addictive, and once he finished his doctorate he decided to set up in London as an art dealer specializing in European printmaking, and in particular the original prints of Picasso.

His business became very successful. But, Fred explained, “In my early 30s I heard a report on the radio that 35,000 children die everyday from malnutrition and preventable disease.  I was no longer religious and had a young family, but I remember being hit by this statistic, and thinking of it in terms of what I was doing in the world.  I decided I had to start to addressing these problems with some of the money I was making.”

As Fred became more involved in philanthropy, he felt motivated to bring his peers into it. He saw that although there were many generous people in the art world, few were giving money to projects addressing the kinds of social issues he was concerned about.

“At a certain point,” Fred recalls, “I also decided that I wanted to be as serious about my philanthropy as I was about my business. I had been giving away what I thought I could easily afford to give, but I decided that my giving should be more appropriate to my income. I saw that I would need to give a lot more if I was going to be as serious in philanthropy as I was in business. It wasn’t about giving the leftovers of money or time, but giving as a more central role in my life. I had a growing awareness that what I was doing was extremely important – just as  important if not more so than what I was doing in business.  The seriousness of the issues demanded it.”

With this in mind, Fred was involved in founding The Network for Social Change (NSC), the first giving circle of its kind in the UK. Fred said, "Fortunately, I got involved with a group of like-minded people, with whom I learned how much more interesting it was to have a peer group of givers to talk things over with, and how much further my limited funds went when pooled with those of other people. He explained, “I realized that giving in the context of a peer group gave me the confidence to give more.  It also prevented me from being discouraged by an incident when I had been misled by one of the organizations I supported. Often people’s giving follows their interest, but I found giving money created interest. When I started giving money to projects, I got really interested in issues I hadn’t been particularly concerned about before.”

In 2002 Fred and a group of friends started another giving circle called The Funding Network because they wanted to create a new context for people to give away money together.  Unlike many giving circles, The Funding Network includes members from different income levels, and it is a place where people can learn about the work of a wide range of charities without having to invest a great deal of time in the process.

Funding Network events are well-planned social events. There are refreshments and established members of the Network make newcomers feel welcome. Raising funds for four or five projects is the main business of the evening. The projects are eachl nominated by a member of the Network and approved by a selection committee. The funding goal is £6,000 ($9,600) per project, although they often receive considerably more.

When he conceived the format of the events, Fred wanted it to be high-spirited with something of the pace and excitement of the art auctions he enjoyed so much. He wanted The Funding Network to create a culture that had the energy of live bidding but wasn’t competitive.

Representatives of the projects make six-minute presentations with a further six minutes for questions from the floor. Then the project representatives leave the room and the pledging session begins.  People call out the amount of their donation and everyone can see the total rising on a chart projected at the front of the room.  After the first round of pledging for each project, there is then a second round so that people have a chance to donate more.  It is at this stage that people sometimes offer to match other people’s pledges up to a given amount.  This is a particularly lively part of the evening as the final totals are reached.

Fred says, "Giving money is one of the few things people do alone. We work together, eat together, dance together – but often people give alone.  I've discovered that giving with others is more interesting, more satisfying, and probably more competent if it is done in the company of other people. The money also seems to go further! That's why I've helped to set up structures in which people can give together and learn from each other."

Fred describes the culture that has developed in The Funding Network, “It’s generous and it’s respectful… it’s also optimistic.  I wanted to structure the events so they encouraged detailed questioning of applicants, but not cynicism. This means that people who participate in The Funding Network tend to be generous and hopeful rather than cynical. There is also a context of respect towards the projects, because we see them as the drivers of change. The Funding Network likes to find projects that would be unlikely to be funded by established charities either because they seem risky or at an early stage of development.”

For the future Fred hopes to see collaborative giving to become part of mainstream culture.  “I would like to see collaborative giving at a smaller level in the UK, with ‘kitchen table’ giving circles and giving circles in schools.  I also think that giving circles can take place at a higher level of giving, in corporations and throughout the financial sector.

Reflecting on the economic downturn of the past few years, Fred says, “I think it is important for people like me not to step back – but rather to step forward in times of economic difficulty.  When I sold the world’s most expensive print a few years ago I put 75% of the proceeds into my charitable trust and I planned to give it away over 10 years.  Then the world fell apart economically, interest rates went way down, and the values of the trust’s shares fell.   But I decided to keep my philanthropy at the same level and just spend the assets down more quickly than I had originally planned.  Donors often take fright in difficult economic times and my advice is always to make a reasonable assessment rather than being fearful, to be prepared to spend capital, and to keep from retracting if at all possible.”

And to new donors, Fred says, ”Just start! You don’t have to do years of research before you make your first donation.  Have fun – but also take it seriously in the sense that you give it a place of importance in your life.”