Wealth Matters: When a $1,000 Gift Is Better Than $1 Million

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The vast majority of charitable gifts — some $286 billion, out of $410 billion given last year — come from individual donations, according to Giving USA, the annual report on philanthropy in the United States. Foundations, like the ones run by Mr. Gates and Mr. Bloomberg, account for $67 billion of gifts made.

The KentPresents festival, in its fourth year this weekend, attracts Nobel laureates, secretaries of state, academics, artists and journalists discussing topics as varied as global affairs and visual arts. The festival is the brainchild of Benjamin M. Rosen, a venture capitalist in the 1980s and ’90s and former chairman of Compaq, and his wife, Donna. It was conceived as a way to give back to the area where they have made their life for the past 15 years.

For Mr. Rosen, though, it was also a way to try something new in philanthropy after a lifetime in the big leagues. He has served on the boards of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, California Institute of Technology, the Metropolitan Opera and the Columbia University School of Business, giving gifts in the tens of millions of dollars.

“Unfortunately, I gave away too much, too soon, and lived too long,” said Mr. Rosen, 85. “Our days of big philanthropy are gone. We’re not making multimillion-dollar donations any more. But there’s still a lot of room for philanthropy.”

He modeled the event on the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of intellectual luminaries in the Colorado ski town, but he said he wanted to distribute the money the festival raised to small, little-known nonprofit organizations.

Mr. Rosen’s approach is not a rebuke of the splashy grants that technology giants are making today but an exploration of a different way of giving. To him, it also harks back to his early career investing in unknown technology companies.

“It’s a completely different world,” Mr. Rosen said. “But from the recipient viewpoint, the grants are so appreciated and do so much good. We get handwritten letters saying that your several thousand-dollar gift helps them, which is so different from big philanthropy where your million-dollar gifts get you a letter saying, “Could you add an extra zero to that?’”

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