Tom Silk

The Role of Philanthropy

Recorded: June 27, 2012

Tom Silk is an attorney specializing in non-profit law. Tune in to hear about his role in setting up non-profits in the US and abroad.

Tom Silk is an attorney with a long history in nonprofit law and management. In the early 1970’s, at a time when there was an explosion of interest in nonprofit organizations, legislation, and philanthropy, Tom honed his interests in nonprofit law and assisted organizations such as the Point Foundation, Vanguard Foundation and the Trust for Public Land. Tom has been the recipient of many awards; his most recent is the Outstanding Nonprofit Lawyer Award for 2012, given by the American Bar Association Business Law Section, Nonprofit Organizations Committee.

In his early career, Tom was employed by the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington and worked in the appellate tax division. As a young lawyer fresh from Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, Tom represented the U.S. government in appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court on tax issues. Around this time, he became interested in exempt organizations. Later, he worked for a large law firm in the pro bono group and there he continued to increase his knowledge of exempt organizations. Tom wanted to do something more, so he left the firm to start a solo legal practice focusing on non-profit organizations, which became Silk Nonprofit Law.

Tom Silk: The environmental movement like any virtuous activity can become a victim of its own naiveté. Because of the virtue, it attracts people who are maybe more innocent than others who have refused life to harden them and they’re more vulnerable. They expect a level of civility and vision, thoughtfulness, etcetera, they’re unguarded and they’re going to be hurt. And that’s good because that’s a part of the process of becoming involved, having these virtuous activities involved in the world of reality where virtue is not highly regarded. But to the extent to these organizations continue to be, to grow and be supported, they’re going to have an impact on the society they’re trying to influence and without it, we’re lost. So all you have to do is keep plugging, you have no other choice.

Tom Silk: My interpretation of the history of recent years and hasn’t released a philanthropy in nonprofits and the environmental movement is that there was an explosion beginning in the early 70’s of interest, of laws, of funding in the area of nonprofit organizations and philanthropy and I was lucky enough to ride that wave. One of the developments that I was part of was the formation of foundations, of grant making foundations by young people who were often inherited wealth beneficiaries. And I formed the first one here which was here called the Vanguard Foundation. These were donors gathered together to try to work out their philosophy of appropriate philanthropy that would make a difference.

Tom Silk: One aspect of leadership I was experiencing was sort of a new form, which is casting aside the old model of a remote donor, a staff driven organization and getting the donors involved and having the donors doing the work. Many leaders today have come out of that experience.

Huey Johnson: Well tell me about your experiences with philanthropy in other countries, and I ask that because places like New Zealand where I’ve done a lot of work or even Holland, they really don’t have a basis for philanthropy that can motivate and carry spokespeople as advocates.

Tom Silk: In the late 80’s when communism came undone, the large international foundations in the U.S. were greatly interested in influencing the development of the former Soviet controlled societies and there was to be a conference to be held in Moscow. The organizers of the conference wanted to have a few lawyers involved who were knowledgeable about comparative law. And riding that thin reed I managed to get invited and that began my involvement in international nonprofit law developments. In thinking about the structure of the – the political structure of society which traditionally is thought of as having three parts, government, business and the third sector, nonprofit sector. Those folks certainly knew what government was about but they had no idea about this third sector so it was my job to try to explain what that was about in a way to encourage the development of society, both on the supply side with the funding side and government and new well supplied funding and also the demand side, the citizen involvement in those organizations.

Huey Johnson: Tom, you and I have had a wonderful existence rather free in what we want to do and really benefit from the existence of philanthropy, foundations, nonprofits, charity, whatever and you have had a life’s work of developing it and I’ve been a practitioner in it I guess you could say and it has, I think, an awfully important role that you’ve touched on in helping a society or helping an institution or helping a family that really wants to make a difference in the world and it has gone on and it really has made a huge difference in our thinking, policies and actions.