Monday, December 22, 2008

Money Well Spent?

I have greatly enjoyed Paul Brest and Hal Harvey's Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy. And I'm digging this whole multimedia approach. There's the book itself. There are the supplemental materials on the site, and even a blog. It's a great way to get a conversation going. I hope I can add some value.

On the plus side, Money Well Spent is written for a popular audience, which is fantastic. Money Well Spent could definitely encourage people to get involved in organized philanthropy and spur those who already are to be more thoughtful about the difference they might make.

Ultimately, though, I think it suffers from some of the problems in Peter Frumkin's academic Strategic Giving. Philanthropy may be more strategic, but will a more strategic philanthropy be more democratic?

I sympathize greatly with the criticisms voiced by Aaron Dorfman (strategy turns grantees into contractors), Lucy Bernholz (giving is as much a matter of the heart as the head), and Bill Schambra (forget the strategy - cut a check).

In my own response, I'd like to focus on the first part of the book and the last part of the book, which, for my money, are the most fascinating. In the book's preface, introduction, and first few chapters, Brest and Harvey are laying out the case for strategic philanthropy. In a delightful afterword, the authors anticipate some of the criticisms of strategic philanthropy and attempt to address them. Don't get me wrong. There's great stuff in the middle: presumption in favor of general operating support, mission investments, and a terrific section on "tools of the trade." As "tools of the trade" implies, though, the middle largely constitutes common practice for a growing number of grantmaking professionals. If you're interested in why this constitutes philanthropic practice, and to what extent it should be common practice, and that's where my interest is, well, read on.

According to strategic philanthropy, donors, in accordance with their values and some sort of empirically valid assessment of the world, act in the philanthropic space - creating funds, investing assets, making grants to charities, etc. - with a view to getting the most value for their efforts.

There's nothing immediately wrong with this view of philanthropy. Who, after all, wants to waste time and resources?

But, if it's all about aligning your resources for impact, you have to ask: what sort of impact? That's something to which Brest and Harvey, despite working for specific ends in their own philanthropic work as heads of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and ClimateWorks Foundation, respectively, deliberately don't speak.

I think there's something wrong in there, so what I'd like to do over the course of a few posts is throw out the makings of what I'll just go ahead and call a communitarian critique of strategic philanthropy. Even if its authors don't in the course of their work, Money Well Spent "brackets" discussion of substantive, constitutive moral views. This bracketing is a serious weakness of the book and of the philanthropy it promotes.

We'll start with "strategy." They keep using this word. I don't think it means what they think it means.

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