American Charity… For the Financial Industry!

American CharityMost Americans have never heard of donor-advised funds and would be surprised to learn that, measured in donated dollars, the second-most-popular “charity” in 2015 (just behind the United Way) was not the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or Harvard or other universities. It was Fidelity Charitable, an organization created and serviced by Fidelity Investments for the purpose of holding charitable donations. Fidelity Charitable acts as a middleman, attracting its customers’ charitable donations and managing them in separate client accounts. Money in such donor-advised funds is invested and held until the clients give instructions (“advise”) about distributions to operating charities.

Because of a 1991 IRS ruling obtained by Fidelity (and similar rulings obtained by other commercially sponsored DAFs), clients get the same tax benefits when they transfer property to their donor-advised funds that they would get by making outright contributions to a museum, soup kitchen, university, or any other federally recognized charity. But no deadline is imposed for the eventual distribution of these funds to an operating charity. If a donor fails to distribute the account during her lifetime, she can pass on the privilege of making distributions to her children or grandchildren or anyone else she chooses. The effect of these rules is that assets that have been given the tax benefits of charitable donations can be held in a DAF for decades or even centuries, all the while earning management fees for the financial institutions managing the funds, and producing no social value.

—Lewis Cullman and Ray Madoff
The Undermining of American Charity

Besides and Also and the Redundant in Writing

William Faulkner - Verbose, Not RedundantOkay, I rail against grammar pedants around here a lot. But there is something that drives me crazy. Here’s an example, “Besides medical care, Shady Brooks also offers a free euthanasia program.” But I’ll bet that almost no one sees the problem with this sentence. Certainly the many professional writers I work with don’t — despite my explicitly telling them about it. The problem is that “also” is redundant.

Once you say “besides” you make concrete that there is something else. So you could write, “Besides medical care, Shady Brooks offers a free euthanasia program.” Or you could write, “Shady Brooks also offers a free euthanasia program.” With the original construction, you are smoothly, but no less annoyingly writing, “Shady Brooks offers other things besides medical care. Besides medical care, Shady Brooks provides a free euthanasia program.” It makes me long for my very own euthanasia program.

From Repeated to Redundant

Now, I get it. Writing is about more than simple clarity. And the sound of the language is really important. But we often train ourselves to like the sound of noise. That is what that redundant “also” is. I assume that it, like so much else that is annoying in the language, comes from advertising. Repetition is highly effective in advertising and rhetoric. “How much would you pay for this knife? Don’t answer yet!”

There is a well known phenomenon in chess. A new player will improve over a period of time and then plateau. In fact, I remember reading a book about this phenomenon and how to break out of it. This sort of thing is true of almost everything. I think it is more a matter of interest than anything. Like me on the guitar. I’m fine with how well I play. I don’t actively work to improve anymore. But for whatever a reason, I have never found that I plateaued as a writer. I’m constantly learning new thing and improving.

Writing Better

But so much of writing is simply a matter of pulling out the crap — the redundant stuff. And this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to write like Hemingway and Steinbeck. Faulkner is a wordy writer, but I task you with finding a redundant word in The Sound and the Fury. I find that day by day I write less and less. When we start as writers, our work is filled with literary tics because we are just talking on the page. But slowly, we notice and expunge them.

It’s not my intention to look down on any writer. My own writing is highly intuitive. Most of the time, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. For me, writing is more about hearing than grammar. In college, music majors spend their first two years struggling with “ear training” courses. English majors do too, but they are called “literature” classes. Listen to it again, “Besides medical care, Shady Brooks also offers a free euthanasia program.” It isn’t so much that it is redundant. And it certainly isn’t wrong. But it sounds to me like a middle school band grinding its way through the Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony. Yet it sounded fine to me just five years ago.

One final note: I doubt you will find this complaint mentioned anywhere else. Grammar pedants tend to get annoyed by constructs like, “Besides, he was a jerk!” But the fact that the grammar pedants haven’t glommed onto this obviously redundant expression is part of what I’m getting at. You’ve got to hear the language — not memorize rules.


Days after writing this, I came upon the following sentence, “It notifies you if your server is not configured correctly, and also scans for viruses and malware.” This is case where the “also” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Without it, the sentence would imply that “it” only scans for viruses when the server is not configured correctly. Personally, I’d rather have two sentences, but this one works well enough.