Sunday, October 22, 2006

From Strategic Giving to Democratic Giving

Peter Frumkin's great achievement in his new volume, Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy, is to declare what philanthropy is for a significant group of donors and philanthropic professionals: the development and carrying out of a coherent strategy for effecting social change.

I was impressed with Frumkin's main argument surrounding a "philanthropic prism," the five components of a philanthropic strategy: the value produced through giving, the vehicle of institution for giving, the time frame guiding giving, the identity and style of the giver, and the logic model supporting the giving. I could certainly imagine a donor sitting down and thinking through these issues and attempting to bring greater alignment and coherence to their philanthropic project.

I was also heartened to hear a voice in favor of constructive failure. For Frumkin, an ardent defender of the pluralism the sector represents, failure and mistakes come with the territory. We're dealing with complex social phenomena and attempting to effect social change. It's not a question of whether or not we're going to make some mistakes. That will happen. The question is: will we learn from these experiences? Are we up for the kind of scrutiny that pores over our failures as well as our successes? Do we report on our failures so that we and others might improve? For Frumkin, we can learn just as much from those challenges as we can from successful pilot projects, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Most of all, I am keenly interested by Frumkin's claim that the effectiveness and accountability questions obscure what's really at issue in these debates: legitimacy. In some sense, these questions of effectiveness and accountability define current debate, and credit Frumkin for seeing these arguments for what they truly are, questioning the right of private donors, philanthropic institutions, and professionals to act on behalf of the public. Our sector tends to focus on effectiveness and accountability as proxies for the real issue: what ultimately justifies philanthropic action? What legitimizes this sector?

According to Frumkin, "the best and only source of real and lasting legitimacy for philanthropy rests in the development of sound strategy." This argument intrigued me, so, at a recent panel discussion on Strategic Giving, I took the opportunity to ask Frumkin about it afterward. Frumkin contended that sound strategy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of philanthropic legitimacy. Without a strategy, it's unlikely that we'll be effective. Without being able to point to results, we cannot be truly accountable. Without accountability, not mere transparency, we cannot claim legitimacy for our sector.

This is where I think Frumkin and many donors miss and will continue to miss an important opportunity. By whom exactly is Frumkin's prism to be used? Where does this discussion of values and vehicles take place? From the look of things, it's for donors - with the possible help of advisors, given Frumkin's skepticism of philanthropic professionals - with the goal of creating a coherent strategy. However, values are not developed in a vacuum, nor do we make grants and conduct the business of philanthropy in isolation. The development of a philanthropic strategy happens in a social context, not least because donors don't do it all themselves. Armchair philanthropy simply doesn't happen.

Frumkin doesn't claim that strategy is a sufficient condition for philanthropic legitimacy because it actually does very little in the way of convincing the public that donors have the right to act publicly on their behalf. Is the Gates Foundation's massive charitable wealth justified because Gates has a strategy? Are their grants more legitimate because they've got a logic model? Strategies and logic models certainly help - but only because they're often useful in getting people's consent to continue philanthropic work.

I assert that philanthropic action is legitimate if and only if all those involved consent to the action (and, I would argue, in some way participate in it and benefit from it). Truly legitimate philanthropy is democratic philanthropy. To adapt Frumkin: the best and only source of real and lasting legitimacy for philanthropy rests in the development of shared sound strategy.

This is where donors and philanthropic professionals alike miss an important opportunity to democratize the philanthropy prism. When a donor wants to accomplish something, their wealth can be used not only to achieve their philanthropic goals but to build a community, to build democracy. Donors should be encouraged to invite others into their philanthropic prism, to experience it and all the challenges and triumphs that come with it. Donors can afford to be strategic, can afford to think about appropriate logic models, time frames, and charitable vehicles. What of those who cannot afford "strategy" but nonetheless stand to lose or gain by the philanthropist's actions? What of them? By inviting them in, by working with them, side by side, for common benefit, donors can give others control of their own destiny, perhaps for the first time. Our goal is not necessarily coherent strategy(although that certainly helps), but cohesive communities.

To some extent, this already happens. As I noted, we are not armchair philanthropists. We discuss our views with others, learn, act, and grow among family, friends, colleagues, fellow trustees, fellow philanthropoids, and fellow citizens. We don't do this all by ourselves. I contend, though, that strategic giving ought to be a collective enterprise, deliberately developed of, by, and for the people. It can start with anyone, a new donor, a seasoned program officer, or your average citizen with a little money to give, but it continues with others.

Every grant is a new social contract, and I hope that given the choice between creating a strategy and creating a community, donors will opt for creating community by inviting them to participate in their strategic giving. That way, philanthropic legitimacy has a better chance of being assured because philanthropy will not mean one thing to a significant group of donors and philanthropic professionals. It will mean the development and carrying out of a shared strategy for improving our common life in one way or another. It will mean something to everyone.

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