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.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Fellow Human

Phil Cubeta is far too kind to us at Gift Hub:
One of the best posts ever on philanthropy. Two years ago. And then the next day, one more post. Then total silence. I am sure there are lots of reasons, but one of them is that our sector is so polite, it just kills the human voice. At a tony philanthropic gathering in our nation's capitol, in the Cosmos Club, I sat next to a fellow human who smiled conspiratorially at me and acknowledged that he - yes, he himself - was none other than the mad monk. I asked him to resume blogging, but he never has.
I remember that post, and, looking back, I consider it a miniature triumph. It's not every day that you manage to say pretty much what you really think. But where did I go from there? I tried to be a blogger. I failed.

There are, indeed, lots of reasons for the inexplicable lapses. While it's true that our sector represses and deadens a certain kind of voice, you shouldn't attribute to martyrdom that which can be adequately explained by cowardice and laziness. I lacked a certain courage, a certain discipline, which this requires. All told, it's really that simple.

But I take the moniker seriously. This is a sort of scriptorium for me. I have my tasks, and my inability to carry them out is no excuse for their not being completed. Such is vocation.

So expect better from Philanthropica. I'm turning the lights back on.

Ira Contra Machina

Why stand on a silent platform?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Today is Election Day. Make your voice heard - whatever your political affiliation.

Find your polling place here. If you've already voted, great. If not, finish reading and make your way to the polls.

Report any problems you encounter here or call 866-OUR-VOTE.

When voting, remember that they work for you, and not the other way around. If you're satisfied with your representatives' performance, keep them on. We can always use good people in government. If you're less than happy with your representatives, fire them and get somebody who truly represents you.

Tomorrow, recall that the only person who can truly represent you is you. Don't let Election Day be the only day your elected representatives hear from you. Don't let Election Day be the only day they care about you, your family, your friends, and your fellow citizens. Don't let Election Day be the only day you fight for your loved ones, your values, and your dreams.

Vote - because today is a reminder of who's really in charge here. Remember that this morning, remind them of it at the polls, and don't forget it tomorrow.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Anger is a Gift

A certain Aristotle quote is trotted out with a bit of frequency, and I have a bit of a problem with it. Here it is on the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors site:
To give money is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter. Hence, it is that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy, and noble.

But this quote often leaves something out. Phil Cubeta at Gift Hub wonders where our "voice[s] of poetry, particularly satire, comedy or carnival" are. I suppose that has its place. I want to know: where are our voices of anger? Who are our Jeremiahs? Who's our Howard Beale? Who is taking us to task? Who among you is angry?

I ask because Aristotle was talking about more than philanthropy in his discussion of his doctrine of the mean, from which this passage is taken. Here's the full passage from the Nicomachean Ethics:
For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry -- that is easy -- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. (Ross translation, emphasis mine)

In the same breath that Aristotle is talking about giving away money, he's also talking about getting mad. Like giving away money, anybody can do it. It comes naturally, but virtue is found in its cultivation.

Which is particularly significant. We operate in a sector that aims to deal with some of the world's most devastating and debilitating diseases, the most complex and intractable social problems, and the most unjust and cruel conditions, and yet we speak this forcibly inert, consummately professional language of strategy as if these things are so many billiard balls to be bounced off of one another just so. Where is the outrage?

Aristotle declares:
Righteous indignation is a mean between envy and spite, and these states are concerned with the pain and pleasure that are felt at the fortunes of our neighbours; the man who is characterized by righteous indignation is pained at undeserved good fortune, the envious man, going beyond him, is pained at all good fortune, and the spiteful man falls so far short of being pained that he even rejoices.

Shorter version: if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention. If you witness someone suffer undeservedly, that ought to madden. If you see someone profit through malice or fraud, that ought to infuriate. When you see cruelty, when you see pain, when you see injustice, and you know it would sacrifice nothing of moral consequence to end that cruelty, to soothe that pain, or right that wrong, and yet it persists, something has to explode inside you if you've got anything resembling a soul. As Paul Ylvisaker wrote in his essay "The Spirit of Philanthropy and the Soul of Those Who Manage It":
Don't ever lose your sense of outrage. Bill Bondurant [Executive Director, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, 1974-92] can't forget, nor can I after he related it, the wondering comment of an applicant who looked about Bill's comfortable office and lifestyle: "How, Bill, do you keep your sense of outrage?" There has to be in all of us a moral thermostat that flips when we're confronted by suffering, injustice, inequality, or callous behavior.

Professionalism has its place. Humor and whimsy, I suppose, have their places, too, but so do our passions, so does our anger. And yet we continue to speak this suffocatingly reasonable vocabulary of effectiveness and accountability, this stilted professional jargon of leverage and targets and benchmarks. Do you people ever get angry?

Because I could just as easily have lifted Aristotle's words and said the following:
To get angry is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide at whom to be angry, and how much and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter. Hence, it is that such outrage is rare, praiseworthy, and noble.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trick or Treat

Ramadan just passed, and we're coming up on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, all holidays that provide occasions for platitudinous discussions of giving, but Halloween and its mass disbursement of sugary wealth doesn't provoke similar discussion. Given the overwhelming sense of gratitude that is supposed to buoy Thanksgiving and the religious underpinnings of the other holidays, it's easy to see why the sector gravitates toward them to wax poetic about what it is that we do here. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of contemporary life, amid the sad commercialism of the holiday season, we are called to pause and remember how fortunate many of us truly are, to think of others who may not be as fortunate, and to give to others without expecting in return.

But all that goes out the window at Halloween. And while we'd like to think that Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas best exemplify what it is we do around here, Halloween, too, is a metaphor for the philanthropic sector.

Consider the plight of the trick-or-treater. What makes for a truly successful trick-or-treater? A male teen (stronger, possible access to personal transportation) without much of a costume (expensive and can impair movement) who targets several wealthy neighborhoods (more and better candy) is easily the better trick-or-treater than the six-year-old waddling around the block in a pumpkin costume with a pair of doting parents. Which nonprofit are you?

Consider the plight of the candy distributors. How do you juggle the expectations of the trick-or-treaters showing up now with those of future trick-or-treaters who might show up later that night? Give all the good candy out now or save it until later? Buy the same candy for the entirety of the night? How much do you want left over to enjoy for yourself? Do you give candy to the teens who aren't supposed to be trick-or-treating but are nonetheless out there? Do you decorate? How much? Do you build a haunted house on your porch or a graveyard on your front lawn or do you just carve a pumpkin? Will you dress up? As what? How much will you spend? Do you leave a bowl outside full of candy and, when it's gone, you're done for the night? Do you check out what the neighbors are doing? Do you compete? How well do you measure up? Do you just turn off the porch light and pretend no one's home? What kind of donor are you?

Now consider the relationship. The desired mark when trick-or-treaters ring the doorbell is someone who comes to the door, gives you great candy (no Tootsie rolls), and lets you go on your way. The undesirable mark is the elderly gentleman or lady who takes forever to get to the door, has a costume on and tries to scare you, and comments on your costume, before finally insisting on giving you candied apples, which your paranoid parents are just going to make you throw away. The desired trick-or-treater is a young person accompanied by a chaperone to prevent mischief that politely asks for candy out of the depths of a costume that demonstrates their enthusiasm for the holiday and accepts whatever they're given with sincere gratitude. The undesirables are the older kids who ring the doorbell several times, demand good candy, complain if given something other than what they want, and egg your house in retaliation. Naturally, expectations are all over the place. What kind of relationship do you have with your fellow donors or grantees?

There's your sector right there. We can decorate over it, dress it up in fancy costumes, and declare a holiday, but there it is, all too human. We stare out the window at the costumed freaks demanding our hard-earned wealth. We ring the doorbell and hope the guy behind it isn't the cheapskate the other guy was. We are eager costumed people running about, looking for bits of sugar to brighten our night. We are weary people doing what we can and looking for a little gratitude in a world of desperation and greed. Pause between Hershey bars tonight and give it a bit of thought.

We're going to spend $4.96 billion this year on Halloween. Will we be better people for it?

Foundations gave almost $32 billion in 2004. Will we be better people for it?

Trick or treat?

Give it some thought and have a safe and happy Halloween!

Another Level of Giving

Upon careful reading of Maimonides' "Eight Levels of Charity," Madmunk humbly proposes another level:
Perfect charity is done when, by your gifts, the recipient is not only no longer dependent on others but is a giver himself as well, for, if at day's end, he is still the recipient and you are still the giver, his hand is not truly strengthened and, indeed, nothing much has changed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Real Difference Between Charity and Philanthropy

"The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest."
Albert Einstein

The adage "give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime" is, for many, at the heart of the difference between charity and philanthropy. Charity refers to the relief of suffering while philanthropy is the seeking out of the root causes of social problems and solving them. There is much truth to this. After all, that's the distinction Rockefeller and men like him drew when they insisted that they were doing something more, something greater, than their merely charitable peers.

Nonetheless, I believe that the true difference between the charity that is practiced by your average schmoe who tosses the Salvation Army a few coins at Christmas, and the philanthropy practiced by a man whose foundation is involved in a number of innovative initiatives aimed at effecting important social change is much simpler: compound interest.

While I marvel at American philanthropy's insistence on private solutions to public problems, its Tocquevillean associations, and its incredible can-do Yankee individualism and generosity, I am in still greater awe of its true genius: an entire system dedicated to harnessing the engine that is compound interest for the good of humanity.

When the charitable man makes a donation, he digs in his pockets for whatever he's got on him or he conscientiously strokes a check for a sizable sum and hands it off to a grateful beneficiary. Bada-bing-bada-boom. Charity.

When your philanthropist, on the other hand, makes a grant, that money's coming from a foundation, or a giving circle, or a donor-advised fund, where that money is invested for social benefit. You can make grants for the next five days, the next ten years, or forever. Bada-bing-bada-BOOM! Philanthropy!

While the charitable man's power is exerted and exhausted in the act of giving, the philanthropist's power is conserved even as it's exerted.

Give a man a fish, feed him for today. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Charity is for today; philanthropy is forever.

There's your difference between the philanthropic and the "merely" charitable: compound interest.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Gentle Reminder of What It Is We Do in This Sector

I got a prospectus from a socially responsible investment group and this petite parable was printed on their materials:

Thousands of starfish washed ashore. A little girl began throwing them in the water so they wouldn't die.

"Don't bother, dear," her mother said, "it won't make a difference."

The girl stopped for a moment and looked at the starfish in her hand.

"It will make a difference to this one."